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Calves Grow Bigger When Patted Gently By Humans

Dec 29, 2015 01:19 PM EST

Gentle interactions with humans and caring strokes can benefit calves' overall growth rate and relationship with their caretakers, researchers from the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, report in a new study. This could be advantageous for farmers, as cows produce more milk if they gain more weight at a young age. 

Generally, dairy farmers immediately separate calves from their mothers and keep them in isolated pens for some time. This is why positive interactions between humans and calves are important for developing good relationships and healthy cows.

The current study focused on 104 Holstein calves at a commercial dairy farm in eastern Germany. Researchers stroked the calves on the lower part of the neck, but only half of the animals were stroked three minutes a day for a period of 14 days after their birth, whereas the other half (the control group) was not, according to a news release.

"In earlier studies our team found out that cows especially enjoy being stroked at this spot. The animals' heart rates even fall during stroking," Stephanie Lürzel, first author of the study from the Institute of Animal Husbandry and Animal Welfare at the University of Veterinary Medicine, explained in the release.

Within 90 days of their birth, researchers found calves weighed more than those that were not regularly stroked. It follows then that gentle contact with humans ultimately influences the animals' overall weight gain.

"A study from the year 2013 shows that cows that gained weight more quickly before weaning produce more milk. The daily weight gain of the stroked calves in our study was about three percent higher than that of the control group. This would translate into around 50 kg more milk per cow per year," Lürzel added.

Using what researchers call the avoidance distance test, they could assess the quality of the human-animal relationship. While less fearful animals do not avoid people as much, those that are afraid of humans have a greater avoidance distance.

"This test clearly shows that regular stroking has positive effects on the human-animal relationship," Lürzel said in the university's release. "In practice, I recommend animal caretakers to maintain regular gentle interactions with their animals. Even if there is not as much time as three minutes a day per calf, regular interactions still have positive effects for the animals."

Disbudding -- a common procedure at dairy farms, in which calves' horn buds are cauterized with a heated iron to be removed before they can grow -- also makes the animals have a higher avoidance distance. This is because the procedure causes immense pain and disrupts a good human-animal relationship previously established through stroking. However, a calf's increased avoidance will subside within several weeks after disbudding, as long as there is regular, gentle stroking, researchers conclude.

Their findings were recently published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science

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