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Calf Welfare

Calf welfare

Animal welfare can be characterised as the unity between both the animal and its environment, coupled with high levels of physical and psychological functioning. The welfare of a farm animal depends on its ability to sustain fitness and avoid suffering. It is the farmer’s responsibility to promote good welfare through good husbandry. When animals are stressed from their environment or from within themselves, the effect of this in the short term is an unnecessary strain on the animal.

Animal welfare under different management scenarios can be assessed in a number of ways. For example, the recording of an animal’s social behaviour, lameness levels and stress levels measured through cortisol in the blood. The aim of these assessments is to identify which specific management practices optimise welfare on farm. In recent years the public have become increasingly interested in how food producing animals are managed from a welfare perspective.

Effects of separating dam and calf after birth

After calving, the cow and calf are usually separated after birth, this is a routine practice that occurs on dairy farms around the world.  The reason for this separation are twofold, namely, control of infectious diseases particularly for calves and productivity. However, this management practice is in contrast to their natural behaviour, living in the wild. A survey of 191 participants (both within and outside the dairy industry) examined their views on the practice of cow and calf separation. The results elicited two very different views on the subject. For example, opponents suggested the practice was emotionally stressful for both cow and calf, compromised their health, along with being very unnatural. Alternatively, supporters of the practice suggested that it minimised stress by separating before the social bond develops and promoted cow and calf health. Furthermore, they also suggested that the industry is limited in its ability to accommodate the pairing of the cow and calf for longer. One consensus between the groups was the importance of calf well-being and management of the calf after separation.

Social bonding

In the first few hours after calving both cow and calf begin to establish a social bond. This is characterised by behaviours such as allogrooming (mutual grooming between two animals), warmth, protection, resting in close contact and the provision of milk. Indeed the cow and calf’s behaviour are often synchronised. There is much debate as to when and how much time is required to establish the social bond.

Behavioural effects of separating cow and calf

There is a small cohort of researchers which have specifically examined this topic. As a result of separation a number of behavioural responses are elicited from both cow and calf. These responses can be increased calling and activity, reduced lying and playing activity. One study examined the behavioural effects of immediate separation at birth compared with separation at four days. This study found when calves were separated from cows at four days, the cow called significantly more, had reduced lying time and ruminated less, compared to cows which had calves separated at birth.  Calves which were separated after four days had reduced lying time and performed more oral behaviours, these being increased muzzle contact with floor or walls. Interestingly, calves which were separated at birth called significantly more over the three day period compared to calves which remained with their dam.

Another study evaluated the effects of separation at either 6 hours, one day or four days. Calves separated at older ages exhibited significantly different behaviours compared to calves separated at six hours. For example, calves separated at older ages (one & four days) spent more time with their head out of the pen, had more body movements and spent significantly more time standing. It is interesting to note that for calves, no significant difference was found for call rate between all three groups (6 hours/one day/four days) post separation. However, numerically calves separated at day four called for double the amount of time compared with calves separated at six hours (27.3 vs 12.9 calls). Cows separated from their calves at day four called at a significantly higher rate compared with day one or six hours after birth (34.8/7.4/7.9 calls). Furthermore, cows separated at day four produced significantly louder calls, 12 decibels (dB) louder compared to day 1 and 19dB louder compared with the six hour group. Considering the findings in this study along with others, the evidence would suggest a greater behavioural response with later separation, which elicits distress to both cow and calf.

Results from another study demonstrated that after separation at 24 hours post calving, dairy cows are unable to differentiate calls from their own calf to other calves. Alternatively, dairy calves respond more to calls from their dams compared with those from other cows. Based on this along with previous evidence it may be beneficial to remove the calf a distance away from the post calving accommodation area so that no vocal sounds can be heard, in order to reduce stress levels on both cow and calf.


The question being asked is “what are the welfare impacts of separating dam and calf after birth?” The research suggests that irrespective of stage of separation there are behavioural changes in both cow and calf. However, when separation is delayed i.e. one to four days, the negative behavioural responses of both cow and calf last much longer and are more intense. These behaviours can be further exacerbated if hearing and visual contact is allowed after separation. On farm there are a number of factors which dictate how long a cow and calf remain with each other after calving i.e. available facilities, hygiene protocols, farmer preference, disease status (Johne’s) and available labour. It would seem reasonable to suggest that welfare is least compromised if separation occurs in the first few hours after birth. As highlighted in the research, the most important aspect is the standard of management of the newborn calf.