For cows to produce milk, they have to give birth to a calf. Standard dairy industry practice is to separate calves within 24 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 calf from the dam also occurs to facilitate milking and management of the cow.
Separation of the new-born calf from the dam is stressful for both cow and calf. The distress associated with separation increases the longer the calf stays with their dam. 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 stay with their dam, the stronger the cow-calf bond and the greater the response (including a negative affective state) at separation. The stress of separating mother and young may also be associated with changes in the immune system that affect calf health and susceptibility to disease.
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 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.
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