Calves are taken away from their mothers so that farmers can sell the milk that the calves would otherwise drink. It is for purely commercial reasons at the expense of animal welfare which is how it has always been. You can see what happens when farmers do it. This mother fights to get her calf back. It strongly indicates the emotional pain caused by the removal of her calf and it happens all over the world.
Mothers have been known to grieve for days after their calf is removed. They might bellow loudly in distress. It is heart wrenching. Sometimes cows chase the trailer in which their calf has been placed as it is driven away.
The RSPCA in Australia say that calves are separated from their mother in the dairy industry to reduce disease transmission to the calf and “to ensure adequate colostrum and feed intake and to simplify disease detection”. That sounds as if it is defending the practice.
If calf and mother are separated within 24 hours of birth it’s helps prevent the mother-calf bond and therefore reduces the distress felt by both parties when they are separated.
If a calf is removed from her mother four days after birth, she will show a strong response in calling for her calf.
Public don’t like it
A survey in America and Germany found that the citizens of those countries generally oppose the practice of early separation and they suggest that the dairy industry should consider different methods.
The Compassion in Food Business website tells us that naturally the mother and calf will stay together for up to a year or more after birth.
As mentioned, ultimately, the reason why farmers separate them is for economic gain as it increases milk yield for consumption and it allows them control over calf feeding and hygiene.
Some benefits in keeping them together
There are arguments for keeping them together such as improving their welfare by reducing the risk of some diseases. It also avoids the distress of separation. Also, allowing suckling improves the future social behaviour of calves.
And cows which remain with their calves have a reduced risk of some post-calving diseases. They have a reduced risk of clinical mastitis by a factor of 2.5 and reduced residual milk in the udder.
Avoiding separation also helps the absorption of colostrum which is essential for an early immunity. And the Compassion in Food Business Website tells us that bouts of diarrhoea are also reduced for three weeks. Suckling improves digestive function. Calves reared with their mother demonstrate more confident social behaviour. Their behaviour is less likely to be abnormal.
When calves are removed early it can lead to increased head-butting, vocalising and urinating and reduced grooming and eating.
Removing the calf increases milk yields for the farmer by 20%. On the upside, however, not removing the calf can be regarded as an investment in the health of the future heard as the calves are healthier.
The loss of milk to drinking by the calf can be mitigated by restricting the period calves have access to their dam to suckle, for example twice a day.
The public’s negative view of this cruel practice (my personal point of view) has encouraged farmers to develop ethical dairy farming in which mothers and calves are kept together. There might be around 400 dairy farms in Europe and Australia which are trialling this method of dairy farming. They are called “calf at foot” systems.
The fact that this type of farming is called “ethical” strongly hints that the general consensus perhaps even among many farmers is that separating calf from mother is unethical and for me, it looks cruel.
It is the kind of farming which drives people to becoming vegan or vegetarian. In fact, the more you see of farming the more you want to give up meat altogether and dairy products for that matter. There’s just too much abuse and cruelty which is a natural consequence of commercialism. When you commercialise animals and treat them as assets it is bound to lead to abuse.