One system – many faces

Fact Sheet

There is no formula for dam rearing systems. Farmers adjust their system to their barn equipment or to their personal vision. Therefore, many different systems have developed.

On the research station in Trenthorst, the calf barn is attached to the dairy cows’ barn. Calves have regulated access to their mothers via a selection gate. Usually calves can choose whether they would like to stay with their dam or to move back to the separate calf area. Calves usually leave the cow barn to rest in the calf area when cows are away for milking or the cows are restless due to the presence of animals in oestrus in the main herd..

A half- day-contact system (calves allowed to spend the night with the mother) was tested in Trenthorst to estimate if farmers could gain more milk during machine milking compared to the permanent contact system. We could show that the total milk yield did not differ between cows with half-day or with permanent contact to their calves. To what extent the reduced contact helps the calves to cope with the weaning distress has not yet been estimated.

Restricted contact systems only allow contact for a short period of time. The duration of the contact does not exceed one hour and is realized either before or after cows are milked. Our own studies revealed that a relative short duration of contact is enough for the calves to satisfy their need to suck. Therefore we hardly ever observed cross-sucking in this system.

Another option practiced on some farms is the use of foster cows, which suckle two to three calves. Mostly, the foster cows are not milked additionally, but have permanent contact to the calves. In order to allow cow-calf contact, to reduce stress at separation and to gain a maximum of milk from the cows at the beginning of the lactation, a mixed-system of dam and foster rearing is widely used.

A few days after birth, while having unrestricted contact in a separated area, mother and calf are introduced into the “mother-calf- group”. There, the cow suckles its own calf and additionally two older alien ones. Each time a new cow-calf pair gets introduced, a cow which has been in the group for longer has to leave, to keep the relation of cows and calves stable. Thus, the calf gets separated from its mother before weaning, but has the opportunity to suck on other familiar “aunties”. Als with the mixed system, the farmer has the choice to allow permanent contact without milking or restricted contact with milking.

Welche Kombinationen sind denkbar?

Permanent contact system

Calf has contact to his/her mother the whole day within the milk feeding period


High weight gain for the calves Milk ejection of the mothers is disturbed during machine milking
Contact to other adult cows Stress  at separation of cow and calf
No cross-sucking

Restricted contact system

Contact to the mother is allowed twice daily during the milk feeding period


High weight gain for the calves Milk ejection of the mothers is disturbed during machine milking
No cross-sucking Stress at separation of cow and calf
Limited contact to other adult cows

Foster cow system

Mother and calf are separated at one week after birth. Calves have permanent contact to foster cows.


Permanent contact to foster cow Foster cows do not necessarily care similarly for all calves.
Contact to other adult cows Teat injuries possible
Amount of saleable milk improved  

Mixed system

Cow suckles her own and two additional calves. If a new cow-calf pair is introduced, another cow leaves the group and her calf is reared by another cow of the group.


Longer contact to the mother Older calves might displace younger ones
Two stage weaning: first mother than milk Teat injuries possible
Contact to other adult cows
Amount of saleable milk improved