September 24, 2016

Why Taking Calves Away from Cows is Necessary

The dairy industry in particular is infamous for removing calves from their mothers soon after birth. Beef cow-calf operations do something similar, except that calves are much older.

So why is it done? I briefly look at  both, and bust some myths about weaning in the process.

Weaning Beef Calves

Weaning beef calves is not as contentious a topic as extremely early weaning in dairy heifers, but it still raises questions about stress and the "emotional well-being" of both cows and calves when separation is sudden and abrupt.

Traditional weaning entails separating calves from cows and putting the calves on a cattle liner, then shipping them off to a place where they neither see nor hear each other. The process is quite stressful, as pairs are moved from pasture to corrals and purposefully herded so that cows go in one pen, calves go in another, and calves are moved off the farm to a completely different location.

This leaves the cows wondering where their "babies" went, and the calves wondering where the heck they are and where their mommas left them. Both would be bawling for a good several days, pacing around, not eating or drinking much, and not resting much either. They do settle down eventually, but it does take a toll on them; calves especially are more prone to stress-related illnesses like respiratory disease.

More modern, low-stress weaning practices involve using nose flaps–those "nasty" things animal extremists were trying to vilify as being yet another "cruel tool" of the cattle industry– or fence-line weaning. Fence-line weaning is basically having a fence in between calves and cows so that they can see, hear, and smell each other, but cannot suckle.

Beef calves are typically weaned when they are 6 to 8 months old (Australian calves are generally weaned later). At this age they are big and mature enough to be on full feed or pasture without requiring more sustenance from their mother's milk. Some farmers like to wean their calves at 10 months old. The reason for this is because at this age their mother would be 2 months away from calving and needing to rest and recover enough to produce colostrum for the next calf.

Calves at this age are not babies by any stretch. They are young cattle, but they are not so young that they are needing their mothers milk for their own existence.

So why wean? Several reasons apply:

  1. It's for the sake of the cows, primarily, not so much the calves. Cows need to have good body condition going into winter (adequate fat cover). A calf that remains on his mom can "pull down" her because she is having to feed both herself and make enough milk to feed her calf. This takes a lot of effort and good quality feed to do so, and puts extra stress on the cow. 
  2. Related to 1), it relieves stress on the cow for having to meet her needs and her calf's, enough to help her gain weight for next calving. 
  3. Cows are expected to produce a calf every year, so they need have a calf weaned off of them before the next one comes. 
  4. Beef calves make up part of the farm's income, so selling them contributes to that income that goes back into the farm. 
  5. There are times where there is not enough feed to keep both cow and calf, and because cows aren't cheap to purchase, it's better to wean the calves, sell these calves or feed them separately, and keep and feed the cows separately as well. Drought is one of those times, and a time where early weaning (beef calves taken off when they're only 3 or 4 months old) may need to be considered. 

If you wish to compare cattle to animals in the wild, young animals are also weaned off their mothers for reasons relating to food supply, new young on the way, and because they are old enough to not be reliant on their mother anymore. Some young stick with their mothers, aunts, grandmas, etc. if they are a herd or flock, but others as commonly do not, and have to set out on their own.

Dairy Calves–No Udder, Just Bottle

As I said above, the dairy industry is certainly notorious for taking very young calves away from their moms within hours after birth. I for one do not agree with the practice of taking very young, baby calves away from their mothers, but on the same token I do not condone the vilification spread around by animal extremists or vegan sites for the purpose of conning people into believing things that may not be fully the truth.

But I digress. The reasons that baby dairy calves are taken away from their dams at such a young age are actually more than just so that cow can go into milk production:

  1. Calf safety. Calves tend to be quite awkward and clumsy in their first few weeks of life, and tend to get in the way or are more likely to get crushed or broken bones if their mother happens to lay on them by accident (which does happen, more often than you'd think); so its safety is really important as well as for the worker's and the cows'. (And yes they're cute little stinkers at this age). 
    1. a) Calves are also very curious critters and tend to get themselves into trouble when their moms can't get to them to get them out. They also sleep a lot in the first few weeks, then are playing and causing trouble from there until puberty.  
  2. Calf health. Calves are very sensitive to illness in the first few months of their lives, and housing them so they have their own little pens or huts reduce chance of disease spreading from calf to calf. Calves are susceptible for getting diseases like cryptospiridiosis, e. coli infections, coccidiosis, campylobacteriosis, etc. A lot of the diseases causes suffering and death if not treated. 
  3. Cow stress. Undoubtedly both the calf and the cow are going to be stressed and confused when separated so soon after birth. But when cows need to go to the parlour to be milked regularly and they have calves at side, a lot more stress and confusion–AND noise–will result when cows are separated from their calves and can't be with their calves for the short time they are milking. Some cows may not want to come to milking because they're more concerned with where their calf is than going for regular milking. Young cows may be the most notorious for this. 
  4. Milk production. Yes, having a calf on with their dams means lowered milk production; less milk going into the tank than what a farmer would like to have means less income coming out. This matters if dairy cows and their milk are a farmer's only source of income. (But, calves need less milk than what a dairy cow typically produces, so technically a calf isn't taking that much milk from what a cow can give when hooked up at the milking parlour.) 
  5. Make management simpler. Having calves away in another barn makes things simpler for feeding, care, and monitoring than working around them with the main cow herd. If the public finally gets dairies to not take dairy calves so early, extra management and a new look at the conventional system will be needed to accommodate those calves and promote that cow-calf bond that a lot of people are wanting to see from many dairies. It can be done, yes, but it takes time, a lot of brain power, and labour to think about what changes to make to make things better, and then make those changes happen. 
Of course, it doesn't help the whole cow-calf bonding situation with dairy operations when they are particularly large-scale, and indoors.

But the other thing to understand is that a lot of dairy cows aren't selected to be good mothers with a strong maternal instinct to protect their calves like with beef cows. A dairy farmer doesn't need to have cows that are protective of their young and be able to establish a bond quickly within the first few hours after birth because that cow and that calf won't be seeing nor needing one another after the next 24 to 36 hours after birth.

Also, there's a lot of cows on the milk line that don't really know what to do if they have a little calf chasing after them trying to get at their udder. Many of them have gotten so used to having their young taken away from them that they don't raise a fuss over it much, not like when they were first-calf heifers or young cows.

Calves aren't denied milk at such a young age; they are fed milk replacers that meet their nutritional needs. There's some argument that milk replacers either aren't enough for the calf, or that they don't provide the same kind of nutritional benefit like they would suckling from their dam.

Smaller-scale farms that can afford to keep cows and calves together and be able to still get milk from those cows are probably better off. Makes one wonder if the future is going to be like the latter rather than what the current situation for dairy cows is.

Who knows. 
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