Calf-directed affiliative behaviour of dairy cows in two types of cow-calf contact systems

Wenker, Margret L.; Reenen, Cornelis G. van; Oliveira, Daiana de; McCrea, Kirste; Verwer, Cynthia M.; Bokkers, Eddie A.M.


There is an interest in alternative rearing systems that allow for prolonged cow-calf contact (CCC). Yet, a better understanding of cows’ affiliative behaviour in those systems is needed. We evaluated the effect of type of CCC on calf-directed affiliative behaviour in dairy cows. Cows were permitted to have either: i) partial contact (PC) with their calf; calves were housed in a pen adjacent to the cow area allowing limited physical contact on initiative of the dam but no suckling (n = 18), or ii) full contact (FC) with their calf including suckling; calves were housed together with the dams in a free stall barn (n = 20). Proximity and physical contact between the cow and her own calf were recorded between 0 and 48 h postpartum in an individual maternity pen, and from 1 to 5 weeks postpartum in a free stall barn. Data were analysed with generalized linear models, except for behaviour with excess of zero-valued data where a Kruskal Wallis test was used. Principal component analysis (PCA) was carried out to identify consistency of behaviour in the maternity pen and free stall barn. After parturition, latency to onset of allogrooming did not differ among treatments (mean±SE, 8 ± 3 min, P = 0.39). Throughout the first 48 h postpartum, no treatment differences were found in percentage of observed time spent allogrooming the calf (PC: 7.7 ± 1.3%, FC: 9.5 ± 1.5%), standing in proximity (≤1 m radius) (PC: 22.9 ± 2.1%, FC: 21.2 ± 2.1%), or lying in proximity (PC: 30.5 ± 4.3%, FC: 32.5 ± 3.2%) (P > 0.10). However, in the following 5 weeks, relative to PC cows, FC cows spent more time on average in close proximity to their calf (10.9 ± 0.1% versus 3.1 ± 0.4%, P < 0.001), and on allogrooming (2.1 ± 0.2% versus 0.5 ± 0.1%, P < 0.001). PCA revealed four components (explaining 76% of the variance). Lying in close and standing in far proximity in the maternity pen loaded (positive, negative, respectively) onto component 1, whereas physical contact and standing in close proximity in the free stall barn loaded negatively onto component 2. Standing in close proximity in the maternity pen loaded onto component 3, and standing 1–2 m near the calf in the free stall barn loaded onto component 4. Our results indicate that, in comparison with FC, PC decreases the expression of calf-directed affiliative behaviours in dairy cows, except in the 48 h following parturition. The partial CCC set-up limited the calf's accessibility, whereas calves in full CCC could initiate contact as well. Nonetheless, large inter-individual differences in calf-directed affiliative behaviour were found that lacked consistency.