When to separate cow and newborn calf?
This is a continuing question for the dairy industry. On one hand, there appears to be increasing concern in the general public that early separation of cow and calf is an animal welfare issue. On the other hand, do we have documented evidence that early separation has benefits for either cow or calf or both?
Two recent reviews of published research appeared in the July issue of the Journal of Dairy Science. One review evaluated the impact of suckling for some time after birth on subsequent milk production and found on effect of length of contact time between dam and calf. Regarding calf growth, holding amount of milk consumed constant, length of contact with the dam had no effect on growth rates. (Meagher)
The other review emphasized the need for consistent calf care to insure consumption of clean, high quality colostrum early in life in adequate volume. In my reading the presence or absence of the dam when this took place had no effect - some fed manually, some provided assistance for nursing to be sure calves suckled an adequate volume soon after birth - either way, adequate levels of passive immunity was achieved. Authors comment, "Various types of farmer intervention, including careful observation and supplementary feeding [of colostrum], may be beneficial regardless of whether the calf is separated from the cow."
Pathogen transfer was another question addressed. It might be possible that extended cow/calf contact might favor transfer of certain parasites and viruses while having no effect on the transfer of others. More research is needed to pin down the specifics. In the meantime we are called on to use common sense precautions.
Commenting on Johnes transmission, authors note that "in some herds, cow-calf separation has supplanted control strategies for which concrete evidence exists to tie the respective strategy to a reduction in MAP prevalence."(5793) WOW! I Agree! Don't let the practice of limited cow-calf contact blind you to other risky management practices that may have crept silently into your calf operation!
Further, the authors observe, "There is evidence for a synergism of infection risk in the calving area, based upon the level of environmental cleanliness, udder hygiene, and presence of other lactating animals. Given the evidence that we have, this review indicates that "prompt calf removal should not be viewed as a substitute for proper hygiene and management in the maternity area." [emphasis added by me]
In general, if the calf enterprise provides good colostrum management and a clean environment for calves the presence of the cow has no negative effects on calf health (scours, pneumonia). Thus, independent of these best management practices there seem to be few if any benefits for early cow/calf separation.
Where do I come down on cow/calf separation?
- Whatever maternity area management rules we have on our dairy, they need to be practical so they can be followed consistently by everyone.
- No matter how the colostrum gets into the calf, she always needs at least the minimum of 200gm of IgG's ASAP to insure effective passive transfer of immunity - suckle, manual feeding, and always clean.
- No manure meals - the first thing in the calf's mouth should be clean colostrum regardless of how we do this. No manure in the colostrum, no manure from the pen, no manure from licking any adult animal's hair coat, no manure from dirty teats, no manure period!
- Cow-calf contact in the period immediately after birth can improve the adaptation of the calf to the new world outside of mom. Dam contact with the calf (especially in unassisted deliveries) can do a world of good in stimulating normal breathing and achieving a vigorous response to the new environment.
Meagher, R. K. and Others, " Invited Review: A systematic review of the effects of prolonged cow-calf contact on behavior, welfare, and productivity." Journal of Dairy Science 102: 5765-5783 July 2019
Beaver, A. and Others, "Invited Revies: A systematic review of the effects of early separation on dairy cow and calf health." Journal of Dairy Science 102: 5784-5810 July 2019