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Mother cow and calf

Alternatives To Dairy Cow Husbandry

Why mother-bound calf rearing and nursing cattle are more animal-friendly

17.11.2021

Mother-bonded calf rearing

According to a study by the University of Göttingen1, most consumers reject the early separation of mother and calf. Some organic farms are becoming increasingly aware that an early separation of cow and calf is not necessary and show that there is another way: 'Mother-bound calf rearing' means that the cow and calf are allowed to stay together. 

In the case of mother-bound calf rearing, the amount of milk delivered is inevitably lower until the calf is weaned, but both animals are less likely to get sick. Typical postural and feeding-related diseases such as udder inflammation in the cows or life-threatening diarrheal diseases in the calves hardly occur in the mother-bound calf rearing. This has a positive effect on the economy and compensates to a certain extent for the losses caused by the lower amount of milk sold. 

Not having parts of the milk for sale is not a problem for reasons of supply, since the level of self-sufficiency is over 100 percent for the whole European Union and more milk is produced than we need. Milk is currently sold below its production value. More space, pasture access and more effort in the management of the animals due to mother-related calf rearing lead to a higher end-user price for one litre of milk. With this additional price, however, you pay directly for more animal welfare and support the farmers who put very important animal welfare improvements into practice.

Find out more about the cow-calf-contact systems.

Nursing cow husbandry

Another form of husbandry is the nursing cow husbandry, in which several calves are raised by so-called nursing cows. Nursing cows are not the genetic mothers of the calves. They are not milked, but usually nurse two to four calves at the same time. The mothers of the calves, on the other hand, are milked and usually have no direct contact with their calves. In this system, the calves have at least the possibility of suckling from an udder. This corresponds to their natural food intake behaviour and prevents health problems that are an everyday issue in conventional rearing. 

However, the fact remains that the calf is separated from its mother. The associated disadvantages of this separation have not been resolved in the case of nursing cow husbandry for both the cow and the calf. The cow is also missing out on the health benefits and the social bond to her offspring. One advantage of nursing cow husbandry, however, is that the calves are usually allowed to suckle over a longer period of time (for example, up to the sixth month of life) than in mother-bound calf rearing.

Mother-bound rearing: Happy cow with calf in the herd

The weaning

The natural age at which a calf weans from its mother and feeds exclusively on grass is around nine to ten months. In the mother-bound calf rearing, however, the calves are usually weaned earlier, otherwise the milk losses are too high. 

From the second week of life, calves begin to eat grass or hay in addition to drinking milk. Most of them can feed themselves with roughly three months and quench their thirst with water. If weaning occurs in a way that the calf and mother do not suffer too much from emotional stress, we believe it is acceptable at this time. 

The separation of calf and mother can be initiated abruptly or in stages. A step-by-step process is preferred from an animal welfare point of view, so that the separation of mother and calf is first tested for a few hours and then this is slowly increased. In nursing cow husbandry, the calves are usually weaned off the cow by humans and can also occur abruptly or in stages.

Economic efficiency

A positive example from practice 

There are some farms where dairy cows are kept with their calves. Dairy farmers, especially organic dairy farmers, are increasingly dealing with the problem of mother-calf separation and the resulting suffering for the calves. Solutions are being sought to avoid separation immediately after birth and to still be able to sell milk. There is no universal system for mother-related calf rearing: some farmers leave the calves with their mothers consistently for a few months, others only for a few weeks. In some systems, the calves are kept separate from the mothers at night but can stay with them during the day. 

Reduction of weaning stress in cows and calves in mother-bonded calf rearing

Calves in conventional milk production are mostly separated from their mother within the first 24 hours after birth and artificially raised using drinking buckets or automatic calf feeders. In response to the increasing demand from consumers for more animal-friendly production systems, there is a growing interest among some dairy farms, especially organic farms, to raise the calves again with their mothers. The so-called mother-bonded rearing of the calves has many advantages. The animals express their social behaviour, for example grooming each other, and the calves learn how to respect the rules of the herd from their mothers in a playful way. Furthermore, the mother-bonded rearing can ensure a very good development of the calves, which can, for instance, be measured in higher daily weight gains. The calves also show less mutual suckling – a behavioural disorder due to an unsatisfied need to suckle, which can lead to health disorders, such as inflammation of the suckled parts of the body or the formation of bezoar amongst the suckling animals.  

However, there are also disadvantages with mother-bonded rearing. Both cows and calves show strong stress reactions when the established mother-calf bond needs to be ended later during weaning. This is, because even at organic farms with mother-bonded rearing, the weaning happens much earlier – usually at three or four months – than in nature, where weaning usually takes place after more than eight months. In dairy farming, this separation often takes place not only earlier than in nature, but also more abruptly. This creates a very stressful situation for both the cow and the calf.  

FOUR PAWS supports the ongoing project of the University of Gießen2, which is carried out in cooperation with the Thünen Institute for Organic Agriculture. The research question being pursued, is which weaning method causes the least stress for the cow and calf and is therefore best suited to loosening the cow-calf bond created during mother-bound calf rearing. For this purpose, two different methods are tested experimentally first in terms of their stress levels for the animals when weaning. Subsequently, different weaning methods, which are already used in practice, are examined regarding the stress load for cow and calf. The results of the study will later contribute to the development of a guideline for successful milk production integrating mother-bonded calf husbandry, in order to provide interested farmers with scientifically proven information.  

FOUR PAWS is working to make better conditions for farm animals

FOUR PAWS calls... 

More animal friendly rearing of calves:

  • Calves and their mothers (or nursing cows) should stay together for at least three months
  • Calves should be kept in groups starting from their second week of life
  • At all time, calves must have unlimited access to roughage and water
  • The number of calves nursed by a foster cow should be dependent on the physiological and mental status of the foster cow
  • Calf weaning from mother cow or foster cow should be done gradually (visual and olfactory contact gets restricted, slowly declining access to mother by drinking) over a time frame of at least one week
  • Both options need a high degree of farmer expertise and management experience – The expertise can be achieved through a mutual exchange of knowledge, stable schools, seminars, and publications

FOUR PAWS has worked with the Research Institute for Organic Agriculture (Forschungsinstitut für biologischen Landbau) to prepare a new edition of a leaflet on mother and nurse-bound calf rearing. Various practical examples are presented and described here. The print and online versions are available here

Cow in stall

Animal Welfare & Nutrition

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Source

 1. Busch, G., Weary, D. M., Spiller, A., & von Keyserlingk, M. A. (2017). American and German attitudes towards cow-calf separation on dairy farms. PloS one, 12(3). https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0174013  2. University of Gießen in cooperation with the Thünen Institute for Organic Agriculture 

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