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A new AU project examines what it means to the cow to be with her calf

In a newly started project at Aarhus University, the researchers investigate what it means for the cow’s welfare to rear her own calf. They will focus on the cow’s bonding to the calf and the cow’s emotional state. The three-year project is funded by the Independent Research Fund Denmark.

[Translate to English:] Projektet sætter som noget nyt fokus på, hvad det betyder for koens tilknytning til kalven og koens følelser at være sammen med sin kalv. Det undersøger hvor motiverede køer er for at være sammen med deres kalv og om køer, der er sammen med deres kalve, e
[Translate to English:] Projektet sætter som noget nyt fokus på, hvad det betyder for koens tilknytning til kalven og koens følelser at være sammen med sin kalv. Det undersøger hvor motiverede køer er for at være sammen med deres kalv og om køer, der er sammen med deres kalve, er mere optimistiske. Foto: Maja Bertelsen.

In dairy herds in Denmark and in most parts of the world, cow and calf are typically separated immediately after birth. However, this early separation is increasingly debated due to welfare concerns. Ongoing research at Aarhus University investigate the effects  of full-time and part-time effects on the calf’s behaviour and welfare. In the newly started project the focus in on the cow’s welfare.

What does rearing her own calf mean to the cow?

The new project, which is conducted at Department of Animal Science, Aarhus University, aims to investigate what it means to the cow to rear her own calf. During the 3-year project period, the researchers focus on the strength of the cow’s bond to the calf, and on how important nursing is for the cow. The project also investigates how the cow perceives her own situation, and if rearing the calf is associated with positive emotional states. Furthermore, the project investigates whether these effects depend on whether the cow is with her calf the whole day, or only part of the day. In order to answer these questions, the project will also develop novel methods to measure the strength of the cows’ bond to their calf, and their emotional states.

Measuring the cow’s motivation for interaction with her calf

Full time cow-calf contact may be challenging to practice in dairy herds, and therefore the researchers will study what full time or part time calf contact means to the cows’ bonding to their calf, i.e. how strongly the cows are motivated to be with their calf. One way of measuring the motivation is to test how hard the cows are willing to work to gain access to their calf after a short time of separation. How hard the cow will work can be assessed by asking her to perform an increasing number of pushes on a plate, or to open a gate with an increasing weight.

Measuring the cow’s emotional state when being with her calf

Moreover, the project examines what the interaction with the calf full- or part time means to the dairy cows’ emotional state, i.e. their feelings. It is possible to assess an animal’s feelings from the animal’s perception of its own situation. If the animals’ physiological and behavioural needs are meet, and they have mainly positive experiences, they become curious and confident and perceive their own situation optimistically.

Contrarily, animals that are exposed to welfare threats (e.g. experience hunger, pain or are unable to fulfil their behavioural needs) and that mainly have negative experiences, become fearful and perceive their own situation pessimistically. After development and assessment of various behavioural tests to measure this, the project will examine whether cows that are together with their calves perceive their own situation more optimistically.

The cow’s reaction to separation from the calf

The longer the cow and calf have been together, the more they both respond when the time comes for separating the two. The stress response at separation has been used as an argument to separate the two within the first 24 hours after calving. However, this project examines whether a gradual weaning and separation, inspired by the natural weaning process, can reduce the cow’s response to separation.

Finally, the project examines the association between cows’ emotional states and their neurological function and stress sensitivity.

Overall, the project will contribute with the basic knowledge necessary to develop management of cows and calves together in order to maximise the positive experiences and minimise the stressful experiences for the cow. At the same time, the project will develop several novel methods to  measure the strength of the maternal bond and positive emotional states in dairy cows.

 

Facts about the project

Funding

Independent Research Fund Denmark, Technology and Production (FTP)

Collaboration

VetMedUni, Vienna, Austria

Newcastle University, U.K

More information

Projektperiod: 1 January 2021 - 31 December 2023

Link for project homepage: Can dairy cows have the best of both worlds?

Contact

Senior researcher Margit Bak Jensen, Department of Animal Science, Aarhus University    

Email: MargitBak.Jensen@anis.au.dk