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Why are calves separated from their mother in the dairy industry?

Article ID: 700
Last updated: 25 May, 2017
Revision: 1
Views: 677

For cows to produce milk, they have to give birth to a calf. Standard dairy industry practice is to separate calves within twelve hours of birth. This is done to reduce the risk of disease transmission to the calf (e.g. Bovine Johne’s Disease, a bacterial infection that is transmitted through calf contact with contaminated feces), to ensure adequate colostrum and feed intake, and to simplify disease detection.

Separation of the new-born calf from the dam is stressful for both cow and calf. The distress associated with separation by both cow and calf increases as the age of the calf increases. Separation within 24 hours of birth interferes with the development of the cow-calf bond and thus reduces separation distress. Cows will show a strong response (calling) if their calf is separated at an older age, e.g. 4 days after birth, compared to separation at 1 day or 6 hours after birth. A similarly strong response in cows was found when separating the calf at 2 weeks of age compared to 1 day. Further effects on the dam of separation at a later age may include less lying and less ruminating. The longer calves can stay with their dam, the stronger the cow-calf bond and the greater the response (including a negative affective state) at separation.

On the other hand, calves reared by their mothers can continue suckling allowing them to drink more frequently and potentially also drink more milk than artificially-reared calves. Calves reared by their dam (or with limited contact with their dam) may display less abnormal oral behaviours, more play behaviours and improved social behaviour (including appropriate submissive behaviours that are beneficial when the calf is introduced into a group) as well as gaining more weight and having better health, and lower morbidity and mortality (depending on cleanliness of the immediate environment). Health benefits for the dam resulting from suckling may include a reduction in the incidence of mastitis and in the incidence of fetal membrane retention.

To reduce separation distress, consideration could be given to a more gradual separation process whereby the calf is prevented from suckling but still has (some) physical contact with the dam. If the calf is given adequate and good quality feed, as has been shown with beef cattle, this allows separation of the cow and calf after several days with little distress. It appears that if calves are provided with an alternative source of milk while still with their dam – and therefore not nutritionally dependent on the dam – separation distress can also be reduced.

Management strategies for avoiding any separation distress for both cow and calf as well as allowing more natural behaviour should be explored by the dairy industry.

Bibliography

  • Animal Health Australia (2016) Johne’s Disease spread and prevalence. www.animalhealthaustralia.com.au.
  • Bergman MA, Richert RM, Cicconi-Hogan KM et al (2014) Comparison of 52 selected animal observations and management practices used to assess welfare of calves and adult dairy cows on organic and conventional dairy farms. Journal of Dairy Science 97(7): 4269-4280. doi: 10.3168/jds.2013-7766.
  • Buchli C, Raselli A, Bruckmaier R et al (2017) Contact with cows during the young age increases social competence and lowers the cardiac stress reaction in dairy calves. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 187:1-7.
  • Dairy Australia (n.d) Bovine Johnes Disease (BJD): Dairy farm guidelines for BJD control: Best practice recommendations for managing the risk of BJD in Australia dairy herds. www.dairyaustralia.com.au.
  • Dairy Australia (2011) Rearing Healthy Calves manual. www.dairyaustralia.com.au.
  • Flower FC & Weary DM (2001) Effects of early separation on the dairy cow and calf: 2. Separation at 1 day and 2 weeks after birth. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 70(4):275-284.
  • Fröberg S, Gratte E, Svennersten-Sjaunja K et al (2008) Effect of suckling ('restricted suckling') on dairy cows' udder health and milk let-down and their calves' weight gain, feed intake and behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 113(1-3):1-14.
  • Hulbert LE, Moisá SJ (2016) Stress, immunity, and the management of calves. Journal of Dairy Science 99:3199-3216.
  • Grondahl AM, Skancke EM, Mejdell CM et al (2007) Growth rate, health and welfare in a dairy herd with natural suckling until 6-8 weeks of age: a case report. Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica 49:16.
  • Klein-Jobstl D, Iwersen M & Drilich M (2014) Farm characteristics and calf management practices on dairy farms with and without diarrhea: A case-control study to investigate risk factors for calf diarrhea. Journal of Dairy Science 97:5110-5119.
  • National Farm Animal Care Council (2016) Code of practice for the care & handling of veal cattle: Review of scientific research on priority issues. NFACC, December 2016.
  • Vasseur E, Borderas F, Cue RI et al (2010) A survey of dairy calf management practices in Canada that affect animal welfare. Journal of Dairy Science 93(3):1307-1315. doi: 10.3168/jds.2009-2429.
  • Von Keyserlink MAG & Weary DM (2007) Maternal behavior in cattle. Hormones and Behavior 52:106-113.

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Also read
document What happens to bobby calves?
document What do we mean by humane killing or slaughter?
document What is veal?
document Does the RSPCA have animal welfare standards for dairy production?
document Why is the RSPCA not a vegetarian organisation?
document How are animals killed for food?
document Does the RSPCA have animal welfare standards for dairy veal?
document Is group housing preferable to individual housing of dairy calves?
document How do young calves cope with transport?
document How much milk should dairy calves be fed?
document Why is colostrum feeding important for calves?

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