Animal agriculture has become one of the most controversial topics when it comes to food. Misinformation spreads like wildfire, and some may find it difficult to make peace with eating animal products without all of the facts.
I am a student at one of the most “vegan friendly” campuses in the United States, according to the Princeton Review. Ironically, my school also has one of the top animal agriculture programs in the world. As a student studying animal agriculture and science at such a diverse university, I have found that one dairy question takes prevalence over all others: “Why do dairy farmers take the baby calves away from their mothers?”
Cows are different than people
There are two main reasons why newborn dairy calves don’t stay with their mothers: for their safety and their health.
To answer this question, I’d like to remind you of the very real and often forgotten fact that cows and people are very different. Cows do not exist in a family unit like most people do. They are herd animals, meaning that they are most comfortable with other cows their age and their size – their herd-mates.
When a cow has a baby, her herd instinct doesn’t just disappear so that she can fulfill the joys of motherhood. For the first hour or two after the calf is born, there is a clear connection between mom and baby. At my family’s dairy farm, we keep the calf with its mother for this part. The mother licks off her baby, which aids in stimulation and getting the calf up and moving.
However, after this initial period, the cow becomes increasingly anxious. She wants to be with her herd mates. Cows are not big fans of change, and I think that we can all agree that giving birth is a pretty big change.
This anxiety puts the calf in severe danger. The cow often forgets about her calf. She walks or runs around, searching for her herd-mates and becomes extremely stressed. This can lead to the calf getting stepped, sat on, or injured in a variety of ways.
Big mama, big problems
The average adult dairy cow weighs about 1,500 pounds, while calves are born weighing between 60-90 pounds. Speaking from my own experience, once a calf has been crushed or stepped on by her exponentially larger mother there is not much we as dairy farmers or even veterinarians can do. It is heart wrenching and terrible to see this happen, and far too regular when calves are left with their mothers for too long.
Immune system health
Here, we circle back to the fact that humans and cows are different, especially when it comes down to biology. Human mothers have a different type of placenta–the sac around the fetus– than bovines. And all of the complicated biology of different placenta types boils down to this: when a human baby is born, it already has an immune system with a semi developed immune response. It may be immature, but it’s there. When calves are born, they do not have an immune response to fight off infection.
This causes them to be at a much greater risk for just about everything found outside of their mother’s uterus. Their mother, however, will produce a special milk called colostrum that will (ideally) contain everything the calf needs to start it’s immune system. But, if the calf tries to nurse off of the cow it can be put at risk.
First, cows can sometimes not be the cleanest animals. As dairy farmers we can give them clean beds to lay in, clean their barns two to three times a day and the list goes on and on. The bottom line is, if they want to lay in the dirtiest part of the barn, they can and they will, and they often do. And if the baby calf nurses on a dirty teat before it’s fed colostrum, it could get very sick.
Second, if the calf is suckling, we have no way of knowing if the calf is actually getting quality colostrum, or any colostrum at all. Sometimes cows get sick after giving birth, and that could effect the quality of her colostrum.
Finally, I want to address one of the most common misconceptions I hear about why the cow and calf don’t stay together: “if they don’t separate them the calf will drink all of the milk and there won’t be any for them to sell.”
Calves get fed milk or milk-replacer. Milk-replacer is the equivalent of feeding your baby formula instead of breast milk – it’s a personal choice. Cows naturally make more milk than a calf will drink on its own, so the choice to feed replacer versus milk is one made by each individual farm.
The best of both worlds
The bottom line is, things can and often do go wrong when the calf is left with the cow. But dairy farmers are trained to be good care takers to their animals, including the babies. That means that we feed them from a bottle or bucket to make sure they drink their milk and that it comes from a clean place. We are also able to monitor them very closely until their immune system develops, and continue to do so as they get older.
The primary job of dairy farmers is to keep their cows healthy and well cared for. Cows that are not taken care of don’t produce quality milk, so it really is in our best interest to have the cow’s best interest in mind. Calves are the future of every dairy farmer’s herd. So the same concept applies. Healthy calves grow up to be healthy cows. Caring for the calves ourselves prevents them from being injured by their mothers, and enables us to care for them in a controlled environment.
Calves and cows are separated because it is best for both their health and safety. It allows the cow to return to her happy place – her herd – and gives the calf an opportunity to begin life its with its best hoof forward! We, the farmers, can make sure the calf gets clean and nutritious milk. Farmers can tell if the calf gets sick and give it the best care possible. We can do all this while providing a high quality, all natural, nearly perfect food.
Happy Dairy Month!