The quality of the relationship between cattle and their caretakers is important for animal welfare and productivity. Nevertheless, the influence of gentle interactions on group-housed dairy calves has not been thoroughly studied so far. We examined the effects of 42 min of gentle interactions (stroking, gentle talking) during the first 14 days of life on female Holstein-Friesian calves. The control calves experienced only routine management. We measured the calves’ avoidance distance towards a familiar person after the treatment phase (17.7 ± 2.4 days old, groups of 12–14 animals), after disbudding (32.3 ± 4.4 days old, groups of 26 animals) and after weaning (86.2 ± 5.1 days old, same group composition as after disbudding). In addition, we measured heart rate variability (HRV) during resting after the treatment and after weaning and concentrations of faecal cortisol metabolites (FCM) after weaning, and we calculated the average daily gain in body weight from birth until after weaning.
Calves frequently showed neck stretching (occurrence in 37% of all occasions) and play behaviour (9%) during the treatment. After the treatment phase, avoidance distances were lower in stroked calves than in controls (p = 0.02). After disbudding, avoidance distances were higher than before in both groups (p < 0.001), and there was no longer a significant difference between the groups (interaction of treatment and testing day, p = 0.002). After weaning, avoidance distances tended to be lower in stroked calves than in controls (p = 0.07). Average daily gain was higher in stroked calves than in controls (p = 0.05; up to 7%, depending on milk provision; interaction of treatment and milk provision, p = 0.05). There was no significant difference between groups with regard to heart rate variability or faecal cortisol metabolites.
The treatment was effective in reducing the calves’ fear of humans in the short term and partly in the medium term. The higher average daily gain in stroked calves is an important economic aspect, as heifers with a high average daily gain have been shown to have a higher milk yield later in life.
|Publication Title||Applied Animal Behaviour Science|
|Author Address||Institute of Animal Husbandry and Animal Welfare, Department for Farm Animals and Veterinary Public Health, University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, Veterinarplatz 1, 1210 Vienna, Austria.email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org|
|Cite this work||
Researchers should cite this work as follows: