Board invited review: The importance of the gestation period for welfare of calves: maternal stressors and difficult births

J Anim Sci. 2012 Dec;90(13):5021-34. doi: 10.2527/jas.2012-5463. Epub 2012 Sep 5.


The prenatal period is of critical importance in defining how individuals respond to their environment throughout life. Stress experienced by pregnant females has been shown to have detrimental effects on offspring biology in humans and a variety of other species. It also is becoming increasingly apparent that prenatal events can have important consequences for the behavior, health, and productivity of offspring in farmed species. Pregnant cattle may experience many potentially important stressors, for instance, relating to their social environment, housing system and physical environment, interactions with humans and husbandry procedures, and their state of health. We examined the available literature to provide a review of the implications of prenatal stress for offspring welfare in cattle. The long-term effects of dystocia on cattle offspring also are reviewed. To ensure a transparent and repeatable selection process, a systematic review approach was adopted. The research literature clearly demonstrates that prenatal stress and difficult births in beef and dairy cattle both have implications for offspring welfare and performance. Common husbandry practices, such as transport, were shown to influence offspring biology and the importance of environmental variables, including thermal stress and drought, also were highlighted. Maternal disease during pregnancy was shown to negatively impact offspring welfare. Moreover, dystocia-affected calves suffer increased mortality and morbidity, decreased transfer of passive immunity, and important physiological and behavioral changes. This review also identified considerable gaps in our knowledge and understanding of the effects of prenatal stress in cattle.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Animal Welfare*
  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn / physiology*
  • Cattle / physiology*
  • Female
  • Male
  • Parturition
  • Pregnancy*
  • Stress, Physiological