Wenker, M. L., van Reenen, C. G., Bokkers, E. A. M. et al. 2022. Comparing gradual debonding strategies after prolonged cow-calf contact: Stress responses, performance, and health of dairy cow and calf. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 253, 105694.

We assessed effects of two-step debonding strategies in calf rearing systems with different types of prolonged cow-calf contact (CCC) on stress responses, health and performance of dairy cows and calves. Forty-eight Holstein Friesian cow-calf pairs had either: 1) full contact including suckling, where contact was reduced before weaning via fence-line separation at day 49 (FC-FS) (n = 10); 2) full contact, where contact was reduced at day 56 by fitting calves with a nose-flap (FC-NF) (n = 10); 3) partial contact (calves were housed in a pen adjacent to the cow area allowing physical contact on initiative of the dam but no suckling), where contact was reduced before weaning by moving the calf box from the wall to prevent physical contact at day 49 (PC-BW) (n = 6); 4) partial contact, where contact was reduced the week after weaning by moving the calf box away from the wall at day 63 (PC-AW) (n = 12); 5) no contact (calves were removed from dam directly after birth and housed in a calf barn), calves were weaned at day 56 (NC) (n = 10). Between weeks 7–10, we assessed physiological stress parameters, weight gain, and the health status of calves, plus general activity patterns based on accelerometer sensor data of cow-calf pairs before, during and after the debonding interventions. Additionally, calves were subjected to four consecutive behavioural tests (i.e. open field, novel object, voluntary human approach and involuntary human approach test) prior to permanent separation at day 70 and their behavioural responses were assessed via video recordings to assess fearfulness. Machine-harvested milk yields of cows were evaluated during weeks 6–12. Data were analyzed with (generalized) linear mixed models. Throughout the debonding period, FC-NF calves had an impaired growth rate (P = 0.02). In weeks 6–9, FC-FS and FC-NF cows had lower machine-harvested milk yields than PC-BW, PC-AW, and NC cows (P ≤ 0.01). We found no differences in responsiveness of calves to behavioural tests, except that NC calves exhibited more solitary play events compared to PC and FC calves in the novel object test (P = 0.002). Overall, our results imply that calves with partial CCC showed low stress responses to debonding, whereas abrupt weaning with a nose-flap during full contact seemed most stressful. Machine-harvested milk yield of FC cows seemed to recover once calves were weaned. More research into strategies to improve the process of debonding is warranted.

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