Detection of maternal behaviours associated with suckling in beef cattle

The ‘uSuckled’ project is investigating the ability to remotely monitor suckling events using devices (such as accelerometers, sound monitors and GPS trackers) attached to open-grazing beef cows.

Led by the Northern Territory Government’s Department of Industry, Tourism and Trade (DITT), in partnership with the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture & Food Innovation, the University of Queensland and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, this research will join a suite of Meat & Livestock Australia funded projects on investigating the causes of reproductive wastage in the northern beef industry.

There are current and emerging technologies that aim to detect the calving events in environments where locating aborted foetuses and dead calves is extremely difficult. These technologies rely on physical observation to assess a successful calving outcome and well-being of the calf. As well as not being practical in large commercial situations, the presence of humans can alter the natural behaviour of animals and potentially increase the risk of mismothering.

As suckling tends to occur within two to three hours after birth, detection of suckling is a good proxy indicator of calf well-being as a calf needs to have the ability to stand, seek out the udder and attach to the teats. The ability to remotely describe maternal behaviours associated with suckling would provide:

  • a non-invasive remotely-detectable dam-based method to approximate when a calf has been born,
  • whether the calf was born alive,
  • if it suckled normally or not and
  • if the occurrence of suckling prematurely stops indicating a self-weaning or mortality event.

When combined with output from current calving alert technology, the detection of suckling events would support the capture of time between detection of early labour to first suckle. This information could support identifying cases of prolonged labour or dystocia events, and potentially calves with poor suckling reflex.

Furthermore, the effect of suckling (frequency and duration) on cows is also known to prolong the interval to first oestrus postpartum and is likely to be associated with change in liveweight due to the high energy demand of lactation. Accurately detecting nursing behaviours would allow frequency and duration of suckling events to be described and their association with performance investigated. This information would provide further insight on the key drivers of liveweight production of commercial beef herds in northern Australia.

The broad aims of the ‘uSuckled’ research are:

  • Detect material behaviours associated with suckling in beef cattle using remote monitoring devices (such as accelerometers, sound monitors and GPS trackers) attached to free-grazing first-lactation cows.
  • Describe the association between frequency, duration of suckling and pre-weaning average daily gain of calves.

‘uSuckled’ Project Details

The ‘uSuckled’ trial will be completed over the 2021 calving period with the final report prepared in 2022. For more information about the project, contact Dr Kieren McCosker, Senior Livestock Scientist, Northern Territory Department of Industry, Tourism and Trade on 0447 828 315.