DK 3: Dairy calves suckling milking cows during the first part of their lives

Summary of final report

A case study observing the cow-calf rearing was carried out to explore how one Danish dairy farmer managed to keep his calves with the milking calves during 1-4 months of their lives. The farm had about 50 crossbred cows. The farm is autumn calving from August to November and sold about 6500 kg milk per cow. Milking cows and heifers had access to outdoor areas. Calves were fattened until slaughter on the farm. The farm had a strategy of extensive farming and was also working actively on health improvements and on phasing out of antibiotics.

The cows give birth in a common calving area, outdoor or indoor. Cow and calf are transferred to a separate box to bond, and machine milking happens from the second day. Together, they will typically be first included in a smaller group of cows and calves, and then a bigger group, where cows and calves are together between morning milking and until after evening milking (of the others without suckling calves). All suckling cows are milked in the morning, and not in evening when they have been with their calves during the whole day. Cows produce more milk than what their own calf can drink, and therefore the numbers of calves and cows are balanced so that there is no milk left for evening milking. This means that not every half had his/her mother in the cow-calf-area. The ‘best suited’ cows are gradually selected to become suckler aunts for the calves without their own mothers. Approximately 20 calves stay with 12 cows per area. By the end of December, the cows and calves – now between 1 to 4 months of age – are separated abruptly: the cows are not going back to the calves after morning milking. In 2013, fence line separation was tried out and proved to be successful. Bull calves often stay longer with suckler aunts.

This study was supported by interviews and visits in six Dutch systems which all kept calves with their mothers in the dairy area.

The design of the housing system needs to be considered carefully: minimum metal bars, corners, narrow places and blind ends, and maximum overview, space to move and equipment for the calves like lower water troughs and feeding tables which they can reach.

The visited Dutch farms demonstrated that skills and adaptation to the herd conditions is paramount for the success of this system, and it requires observation and knowledge of cow and calf behaviour, as well as quick action and reaction to all observations made. The Danish farmer had developed the system over a 20 year period, whereas the British farmer who did not have much prior experience was running into a lot of challenges. All the interviews in The Netherlands also supported this. So: start carefully and make sure that there are time for observations, actions and interactions, and room for constant adjustments. The people taking care of the herd should be highly attentive and ready to interact! It is wrong expectation that humans do not need to do much because ‘cows care for the calves’.

Bonding should be ensured from early start and the biggest challenge in the cow-calf system is clearly the de-bonding process, and to a lesser extent also the bonding. Further literature studies suggest different ways to meet some of the challenges of creating bonds between cows and their calves, as well as to de-bond at weaning.

Read the final report: Dairy calves suckling milking cows during the first part of their lives

Read also:
DK 1: Farmer field schools for climate friendly farming
DK 2: Long term pastures with herbs