It has become a rare sight in modern dairy cow production systems: cows and their calves together. Usually, they are separated immediately after birth. However, there is another option called dam rearing.
There are two main reasons for the early separation of the dairy cow and her calf. First, to protect the offspring from pathogens that might be spread by the dam, and second, to prevent the establishment of a bond between mother 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 like licking.
To facilitate more natural behavior in their animals, some farmers introduced dam rearing onto their farms. In contrast to the common rearing methods, where humans provide milk for the offspring, calves in dam rearing systems are allowed to suck from the cow’s udder until they increase their solid feed intake before weaning. Depending on the system, calves are partly able to choose when and how often they suck, and the milk intake is rather high compared to the artificial feeding system. Cows which nurse calves are still additionally machine milked. Besides feeding naturally, calves also learn how to behave towards other adult cows in order to avoid possible negative interactions.
Since 2004, researchers of the Thünen-Institute have been addressing questions about how the cow-calf-contact can be introduced under modern management conditions, and whether animals and farmers can benefit from this rearing system. The effects of dam rearing on calf health, cow performance and animal behavior have been studied. Projects were conducted in cooperation with ETH Zurich, VetmedUni Vienna, University of Kassel or CAU Kiel.
Meanwhile the method has mainly found approval with organic farmers. However, dam rearing could also be a rearing option for conventional farms. Although we already clarified quite a few questions, some are still open. We will focus on these issues and report our scientific results continuously.
While we talk about calf rearing by suckling (dam rearing) in dairy production, the term suckler cow describes a rearing system for beef cattle. Beef cattle or their crossbreeds are kept extensively – mainly on pasture. Suckler cows and their calves spend about seven to eight months together before calves are weaned. At this age the offspring mainly feeds on solid food and is no longer dependent on the mother for nutrition. After weaning calves are either intensively fattened or used as next generation suckler cows. One big difference between suckler cows and cows in suckling systems is that the latter are milked, whereas suckler cows never have contact with a milking machine.