How long do dairy calves stay with their mothers and why are they separated?

Commonly in Australia, dairy cows live outdoor, and calves are born in the paddock. They spend the first few hours after birth with their dams before being taken indoors, out of the elements.

Last updated 30/04/2021

Separating calves from cows is recommended for the health and welfare of both cows and calves.

After spending the first few hours outdoors with their dams, calves are taken indoors and reared in clean sheds. Here they are protected from the weather and predators, fed milk and solid feed so they can grow and thrive.1

Calves are born with low immunity, and this is boosted by drinking colostrum, the first milk from their mothers, in the first 24 hours of life.2 Australian research shows that nearly 40% of all calves fail to get enough colostrum and are three times more likely to get very low levels of immunity if left in the paddock with their dams.5 Inadequate colostrum intake leads to calves becoming vulnerable to germs and illness.3 In calf sheds, farmers monitor colostrum intake, and make sure calves drink enough to build strong immune systems and protect them from disease. Separating calves from adult cows is also recommended by vets to prevent spread of diseases such as Bovine Johne’s Disease, a chronic infection of the gut which is spread to calves from adult cow faeces.4

Separating calves protects the cow’s health too. Modern dairy cows produce more milk than a single calf can drink: on average 20 L per day, and up to 40 L at peak times. A calf only drinks 5 to 10 L per day which leaves the cow at risk of painful udder swelling and mastitis. Milking machines can completely and hygienically empty the udder, reducing the risk of blockage or infection.

The average Australian dairy herd is close to 250 cows. They usually graze in large paddocks and walk around 2 to 3 km a day, sometimes returning to a new pasture after milking. This is appropriate for an adult cow, but too much for young calves to manage. Separating the calves protects them from over-exertion and stress during long periods of walking.

The Australian dairy industry is committed to ensuring best practice in calf rearing though ongoing research and regular consultation with experts such as vets and animal welfare professionals.

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