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Keeping cows and calves together

Kerstin Barth | 31.05.2022

OL Institute of Organic Farming

It has become a rare sight in modern dairy production systems: cows and their calves together. Usually, they are separated immediately after birth. However, there is another option called cow-calf contact.

There are two main reasons for the early separation of cow and calf. First, to protect the offspring from pathogens that might be spread by the dam, and second, to prevent the bonding of dam and calf. This bond strengthens during the first days after birth and a later separation would be very stressful for all parties (cow, calf, farmers). On the other hand, early separation means that cows cannot perform natural affiliative behavior towards their calves and therefore the latter lack positive interactions, e.g. licking.

In order to allow the animals to express more normal behaviour, some dairy farms have decided to practice cow- calf contact. In contrast to traditional rearing, where calves are fed milk by humans, cow-calf contact systems allows calves to suckle directly from a cow's udder until weaning, when they are already take in larger amounts of solid feed. The cows continue to be milked. The calves also learn how to deal with other adult animals, for example to avoid aggressive behaviour.

While in dairy farming one speaks of cow-calf contact, the term suckler cow rearing refers to a form of cattle rearing in beef production. Here, beef cattle or crosses are kept extensively on pasture. Cows keep their calves until weaning in the 7th/8th month of age, when the calves are fed mostly solid feed rather than milk. Only then are the young animals separated from their dams and either finished on a fattening farm or are used as mothers. However, the cows are never milked in this system.

In da-calf contact, the calves suckle on their biological mother, while in rearing by foster cows, alien cows take over the rearing. There are also mixed forms in which the calves suckle on their dam and also on foster cows. The overarching term for all of these practices is "cow-calf contact”. Paying attention to the terms is important because the systems can have quite different effects.

Researchers at the Thünen Institute have been working since 2004 on the question of how contact between cow and calf can be enabled under modern husbandry conditions and whether this benefits the animals and the farms. Research is being conducted to determine how this form of rearing affects the health of the calves, the performance of the cows, and also the behaviour of the animals. Many studies have been and are being conducted in cooperation with other research institutions.

In the meantime, the method is becoming more and more popular in practice - especially on organic farms. But cow-calf contact could also be an alternative for conventional farms. Even though some research has already been done - a number of questions are still open. We will address these questions and report research results here on an ongoing basis.


One system – many faces

There is no formula for cow-calf contact systems. Farmers adjust their system to their barn equipment or to their personal vision. Therefore, many different systems have developed.

One system – many faces

Do adult cows profit when dam reared as calf?

The breeding goal for dairy production is a high performance cow, which can be used many lactations and is characterized by steady health and high fertility. Social behavior was not of interest to breeders thus far. However, animals which can cope better in difficult situations, e. g., when introduced into a new group, might perform continuously on a high level.

Do adult cows profit when dam reared as calf?

Machine milking of cows that also suckle their calves

One characteristic of the cow-calf contact system is that cows suckle their calves and are additionally machine milked. However, the machine milk yield is significantly reduced.

Machine milking of cows that also suckle their calves

Integration into modern production systems

Just as in conventional rearing systems, calves in dam rearing have certain requirements: calves must have access to a lying area with dry bedding, feed and water. From time to time these calves also need to be examined and when necessary treated. Thus, a separate calf area has to be provided.

Integration into modern production systems


Things to know about milk from cow-calf contact systems

Is milk from cow-calf contact systems safe? Which farms offer it at all? And how much milk does a calf actually suckle? Here you will find answers to these and other questions.

Things to know about milk from cow-calf contact systems


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