Effect of cow-calf contact on cow motivation to reunite with their calf

Wenker, Margret L.; Bokkers, Eddie A.M.; Lecorps, Benjamin; Keyserlingk, Marina A.G. von; Reenen, Cornelis G. van; Verwer, Cynthia M.; Weary, Daniel M.


Early cow-calf separation prevents much of cows’ natural maternal behaviour. Early separation is thought to prevent the development of a cow-calf bond. To assess this bond, we measured motivation of dairy cows to reunite with their calf. To vary the degree of bonding, some cows were allowed continued contact with their calf and others were separated from their calf soon after birth, following standard practice on most farms. Among cows allowed continued contact, some were able to suckle their calf and others were prevented from suckling (by covering the cow’s udder with an udder net). Cows were habituated to the weighted-gate apparatus before calving by daily training with the (un-weighted) gate. After calving, cow willingness to use the gate was assessed by determining if she would push open the gate to access to her own calf. Testing occurred once daily, with weight on the gate gradually increased. After passing through the gate, the dam’s calf-directed behaviour was recorded. Suckled cows pushed a greater maximum weight (45.8 ± 7.8 kg) than separated cows (21.6 ± 6.7 kg) and non-suckled cows (24.3 ± 4.5 kg), with no differences between separated and non-suckled cows. Once reunited, latency to make nose contact and duration of licking did not differ between treatments. We conclude that motivation for calf contact is greater for cows that are suckled.