Short- and long-term effects of rearing dairy calves with contact to their mother on their reactions towards humans
In this Research Communication we address the hypotheses that reduced contact with humans during the first week of life would impair the relationship of dairy calves reared in dam-calf-contact systems to humans in comparison with artificially reared animals, but that this difference would vanish over time. Artificially reared calves (Artificial) that had been separated from their mother within 12 h after birth were bottle-fed with colostrum for 5 d and thereafter sucked milk from an automatic milk feeder. Animals reared with damcalf contact (Dam-contact) were kept in the calving pen with their dam for 5 d, and then had permanent access to the cow barn and thus to their dam. Calves were weaned at an age of 12 weeks and kept in young stock groups mixed of both treatments until integration into the cow herd. We tested the animals’ relationship with humans by assessing the animals’ responses towards an unfamiliar person in an avoidance distance (AD) test in the home environment at 4 weeks of age, at 15 months and at 33 months. In calves, we additionally measured AD in a novel arena after a stationary person test. Artificial animals had lower AD, i.e. showed lower level of fear, than Dam-contact calves. However, the AD in Dam-contact calves decreased with increasing number of days they experienced assistance for suckling. Further, there was no significant difference in later ages. In conclusion, gentle human contact in combination with feeding during the first 5 d of life improved calves’ relationship to humans leading to differences between the two treatments as well as within the Dam-contact calves. Potential effects under different conditions regarding quantity and quality of human-animal interactions need further research.