Invited review: A systematic review of the effects of prolonged cow-calf contact on behavior, welfare, and productivity.


Marina A G von Keyserlingk


Animal Welfare Program, Faculty of Land and Food Systems, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada V6T 1Z4. Electronic address: [Email]


Separation of calves from cows within hours or days of birth is common on dairy farms. Stakeholders have conflicting perspectives on whether this practice is harmful or beneficial for the animals' welfare and production. Our objective was to critically evaluate the scientific evidence for both acute and long-term effects of early separation versus an extended period of cow-calf contact. The outcomes investigated were the behavior, welfare (excluding physical health), and performance (milk yield and growth, respectively) of dairy cows and calves. Primary research papers were found through targeted Web of Science searches, the reference lists of recent reviews for each topic, and the reference lists of papers identified from these sources. Studies were included if they were published in English, the full text was accessible, and they compared treatments with and without contact between dairy cows and calves for a specified period. Early separation (within 24 h postpartum) was found to reduce acute distress responses of cows and calves. However, longer cow-calf contact typically had positive longer-term effects on calves, promoting more normal social behavior, reducing abnormal behavior, and sometimes reducing responses to stressors. In terms of productivity, allowing cows to nurse calves generally decreased the volume of milk available for sale during the nursing period, but we found no consistent evidence of reduced milk production over a longer period. Allowing a prolonged period of nursing increased calf weight gains during the milk-feeding period. In summary, extended cow-calf contact aggravates the acute distress responses and reduces the amount of saleable milk while the calves are suckling, but it can have positive effects on behaviors relevant to welfare in the longer term and benefit calf growth. The strength of these conclusions is limited, however, given that relatively few studies address most of these effects and that experimental design including timing of contact and observations are often inconsistent across studies. Few studies presented indicators of long-term welfare effects other than abnormal and social behavior of the calves.


animal behavior,animal welfare,growth,maternal care,public attitudes,