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Keeping calves and cows together

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Animal-friendly calf raising

The Louis Bolk Institute works on economically viable, animal-friendly calf-rearing systems for dairy farms. During 2009-2015 we participated in an international project to improve organic practices for rearing young calves (0-12 weeks), based on criteria such as natural behaviour, animal health and welfare, ethics, disease prevention and economic viability. An important motivation for this project was to respond to consumers' concerns about the common practice of separating calves from their mothers immediately after birth, which is perceived as animal-unfriendly.

Innovative international applied research

Funded by the Norwegian Research Council and coordinated by the Norwegian National Veterinary Institute, the project was conducted in Sweden, Norway, Canada and the Netherlands. As part of this project, Canadian and Dutch researchers compared different weaning and separation practices. The Louis Bolk Institute conducted research on 20 organic dairy farms in the Netherlands. Two of these farms were involved in developing and testing alternative weaning and separation methods. A report of the results can be downloaded.

Involving both producers and consumers

A marketing study conducted by the Louis Bolk Institute shows that the concept of 'keeping calves and cows together' is well-received by consumers and fits the image of organic agriculture. However, calf suckling systems are still in their infancy and a golden standard has yet to be developed. To implement the concept, dairy farmers will have to pay more attention to their calves and, in many cases, will have to change the layout of their cow houses. More expertise and long-term experience is needed to further develop the concept.

Follow-up research

In autumn 2016 researchers of the Louis Bolk Institute and Wageningen University & Research started a follow-up project to review and summarise available knowledge on calf suckling systems. This information will be helpful to dairy farmers considering to switch to rearing systems in which calves and cows are kept together. Furthermore, if knowledge gaps are identified, additional research projects may be set up. Minister for Agriculture van Dam, who commissioned this project, will receive a written report by the end of March 2017. 

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Follow-up research is needed to assess which factors are essential for decreasing calf mortality and enhancing animal well-being

Project leader

Cynthia Verwer

Animal Health& Welfare