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Research article2015Peer reviewed

The effect of physical contact between dairy cows and calves during separation on their post-separation behavioural response

Föske Johnsen, Julie; Ellingsen, Kristian; Gröndahl, Ann Margaret; Böe, Knut Egil; Lidfors, Lena; Mejdell, Cecilie Marie


Premature breaking of the maternal bond between a cow and her calf triggers a strong behavioural response which renders separation and weaning major welfare challenges in suckling systems. Fence-line separation and weaning allowing physical contact has been evaluated for beef cattle and is claimed to reduce stress at separation. The objective of this study was to compare the post-separation behavioural response of cow-calf pairs separated either with a fence-line (FL, n = 8 pairs) allowing physical contact or with a solid wall (SW, n = 8 pairs) allowing merely auditory contact. After separation, all calves were offered milk (2.0 L, thrice a day) from a teat bottle to reduce the effect of hunger. Behaviours were recorded for 4 h at days 0 (day of separation), 1, 2, 3 and 4 from which we calculated the total behavioural reaction (area under the curve, AUC). Treatment differences were analysed with two samples Wilcoxon test. Most of the post-separation responses occurred during day 0-2. Results show that FL calves performed less high-pitched (open mouthed) vocalizations as compared to SW calves (P = 0.003). Median number of calls/4 h and range for FL vs. SW calves respectively were: day 0; 13 (0-94) vs. 361 (2-658), day 1; 10 (1-247) vs. 274 (18-872), day 2; 0 (0-4) vs. 48 (0-365), day 3; 0 (0-1) vs. 4 (0-135) and day 4; 0 (0-2) vs. 18 (0-84). Calves separated with FL also showed a lower frequency than SW calves (P = 0.003) of alert behaviour defined as high-head posture, pointed ears with focus towards the cow (median percentage of observations and range for FL and SW calves respectively): day 0; 23 (0-50) vs. 26 (0-50), day 1; 3 (0-12) vs. 12 (4-36), day 2; 0 (0-6) vs. 12 (0-18), day 3; 0 (0-2) vs. 3 (0-18) and day 4; 0 (0-2) vs. 15 (0-28). No significant treatment differences were found for other calf behaviours or in the post-separation behavioural responses of the cow. This is the first study to quantitatively assess two different vocalizations in response to separation; low-pitched vocalizations (with closed mouth) and high-pitched vocalizations in response to separation. Recordings of high-pitched vocalization seem to be a promising tool for assessing distress at separation. In conclusion, FL separation allowing physical contact may reduce the vocal response and alert behaviour of calves. (C) 2015 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.


Cattle; Weaning; Welfare; Organic; Fence-line

Published in

Applied Animal Behaviour Science
2015, Volume: 166, pages: 11-19

    UKÄ Subject classification

    Animal and Dairy Science
    Other Veterinary Science

    Publication identifier


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