Skip to main content
Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2008

Response of dairy cows and calves to early separation: Effect of calf age and visual and auditory contact after separation

Stehulova, Ilona; Lidfors, Lena; Spinka, Marek


We evaluated how the behavioural and heart rate response of dairy cows and calves to mutual separation was affected by two factors: the age of the calf at separation (1, 4 and 7 days) and the presence or absence of visual and auditory contact between the mother and her calf after separation. In total, 46 cow-calf pairs were randomly allocated to one of six treatments according to a 3 x 2 factorial design. The cows' behavioural response to separation was recorded at 0-1, 9-10, 25-26 and 50 and 51 h after separation. The calves' behavioural response was recorded during the 24 h after separation. The heart rate was measured 60 min before and 60 min after separation. Cows from the later separation treatments spent more time standing (p < 0.01), placed their heads outside the pen (p < 0.001), vocalised (p < 0.05) and sniffed both the air (p < 0.01) and other animals (p < 0.001) more frequently compared to cows separated from their calves on day 1. The behavioural response was also more intense when the cows could see and hear their calves: they placed their heads outside the pen (p < 0.001), vocalised (p < 0.001) and sniffed the air (p < 0.01) more often than the no contact cows. Heart rate increased in all cows immediately after separation and was not influenced by the calf's age or by contact with the calf. After separation, older calves stood and moved more (p < 0.001), placed their heads outside the pen more often (p < 0.01) and showed more explorative behaviour (i.e. sniffing walls and bedding, p < 0.01; licking walls, p < 0.05) than the calves separated on day 1. Furthermore, the calves with visual and auditory contact with their mothers tended to place their heads outside the pen more often (p < 0.1) than the calves from the no contact treatments. Heart rate increased rapidly in all calves after separation; however, the increase lasted longer in the later separated calves (p < 0.05). At 3 weeks of age, the calves separated on day 7 habituated more quickly to the novel situation (p < 0.001). Calves separated on day 4 were more likely to engage in social play than the calves separated on days 1 and 7 (p < 0.05) and the calves denied post-separation contact with their dams also showed more social play compared to calves without this contact (p < 0.05). The results indicate that the response of cows and calves to separation is more intense and lasts longer when separation is delayed and that this effect is prolonged and further intensified when they are allowed visual and auditory contact after separation. On the other hand, delayed separation influences later social behaviour of calves in a way that may enhance their coping abilities. (c) 2007 Published by Elsevier B.V.


dairy cattle; mother-young bond; separation; weaning; behaviour; heart rate

Published in

Applied Animal Behaviour Science
2008, Volume: 110, number: 1-2, pages: 144-165

    SLU Authors

    UKÄ Subject classification

    Animal and Dairy Science
    Veterinary Science

    Publication Identifiers


    Permanent link to this page (URI)