Stroking Your Way To Higher Milk Yield

A new research study in Germany says, regular stroking of calves not only improves the animal-human relationship but also induces a weight gain in calves, which in turn results in higher milk yield later in life.

A healthy relationship between cattle and caretakers is very crucial not only for ethical reasons, but also for animal welfare and productivity. Quality relationship brings in reduced stress responses during routine management practices, increases work safety and may also fetch economic benefits.

It is generally observed that cattle and other domestic animals like and enjoy the gentle interactions which they occasionally have with humans in the form of stroking, soothing talks, etc. Whether these animal-human interactions bring in measurable, quantifiable changes in cattle is unknown and is an interesting subject to be studied and understood.

A recent study conducted in Germany throws some light into this aspect. Researchers wanted to understand the effects of gentle interactions during the first two weeks of a calf’s life, under conditions found typically in commercial dairy farms.

For their study, they picked 104 female Holstein-Friesian new-born calves at a commercial dairy farm and divided them into two groups. The calves in one group were subjected to 3 minutes of daily stroking for the first 14 days of their lives, while the other group members were devoid of this human interaction.

As part of gentle tactile interaction, researchers talked to them in a soft soothing way along with applying strokes on the lower part of their neck at a rate of about 60 strokes per minute in each direction for 3 minutes every day.

“In earlier studies, our team found out that cows especially enjoy being stroked at this spot. The animals’ heart rates even fall during stroking,” says Stephanie Lurzel from Institute of Animal Husbandry and Animal Welfare, Vienna.

The calves perceived these interactions as positive which were quite evident through high levels of neck stretching (occurred in 37 percent of all occasions), oral behavior (44 percent) and play behavior (9 percent). Neck stretching is commonly observed during social licking in adult cows and is interpreted as a sign of relaxation, while play behavior is considered not only to be an indicator of positive emotions, but is also observed to be a means to induce them.

Better animal-human relationship

In order to examine the outcome of these gentle interactions, researchers conducted a small test in the third week of the calves’ life, known as the avoidance distance test. This test helps to quantify the quality of the animal-human relationship by measuring the distance at which a calf avoids a familiar person approaching towards it from the front. Avoidance distance is smaller for calves with less fear of humans, while it is larger for those which are more afraid of people.

This simple test revealed that calves which had experienced gentle interactions during the early phase of their lives showed lower avoidance distance than non-stroked calves.

“This test clearly shows that regular stroking has positive effects on the human-animal relationship,” Lurzel points out. “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.”

Stroked calves show a higher average daily gain in body weight

Weight measurements three months after their birth showed that, stroked calves weight more than non-stroked calves. The average daily gain in body weight for stroked calves was about 3-7 percent more than that in non-stroked calves. This shows that gentle contact with humans appears to have a direct influence on the calf’s weight gain.

“The daily weight gain of the stroked calves in our study was about 3 percent higher than that of the control group. This would translate into around 50 kg more milk per cow per year,” says Lurzel.

In another recent research study, it was reported that there is a strong link between average daily gain in body weight until weaning and milk yield later in life. It was observed that calves with a 0.1 kg per day higher average daily gain in body weight produced on average 155 kg extra milk during their first lactation.

Researchers hypothesize that, one of the likely reasons for this higher weight gain in stroked calves could be that, with lower fear responses towards humans, their bodies were able to allocate more energy for growth. Another possible reason could be, stroking might be stimulating release of oxytocin or gastrointestinal hormones, which might also be contributing to a better weight gain.

Thus, gentle interactions between stock-people and calves may also be beneficial from an economic point of view, as a higher average daily gain seems to translate to a higher milk yield later in life and hence in a way have a bearing on the farm’s commercial success.


“The influence of gentle interactions on avoidance distance towards humans, weight gain and physiological parameters in group-housed dairy calves”, Stephanie Lurzel et al, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 25 Sept, 2015.

Feature Image: Regular stroking improves the human-animal relationship. Credit Marc Decker

Ravindra Krishnamurthy

Ravindra Krishnamurthy is a freelance science writer covering science, tech, the environment, health, food, and culture.

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