Separating Cows and Calves: The Real Story

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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.

dairy calves enjoy the perks of growing up with dairy farmers to care for their every need
Dairy calves enjoy the perks of growing up with dairy farmers to care for their every need.

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.

Cow instincts

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.

Misconceptions

Calve are fed by dairy farmers
Calves are fed by dairy farmers so that they get the right amounts of nutritious milk!

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!

Happy Dairy Month
Don’t forget to celebrate Dairy Month with all your favorite dairy products!

19 comments

  1. Great explanation!! My parents and grandparents were farmers!! Best place to teach work ethics and family working together and so much more!!

  2. As a former dairy farmer for many years, I agree wholeheartedly with this article. Except you need to get your facts right. The placenta is not the sac that wraps the baby. The placenta is what attaches to the wall of the uterus and feeds the baby in utero through the umbilical cord. This is not different between humans and cows.

    1. Hi Christine!- Thank you for your feedback! You are correct regarding the difference between an amniotic sac and the placenta, that was an over simplification in my article meant to make it easier for readers to understand. However, there is a link embedded in the article on the words “complicated biology” to help explain the different types of placentas. I am by no means an expert, but in my dairy reproduction class we learned that bovines have cotyledonary, epitheliochorial placentas, where humans have discoid, hemochorial placentas. This difference in barriers dictates what is shared between mother and baby. In this way, humans are born with an immune system they partially “inherit” from their mothers, but bovines do not share as much across the placental barrier, so they get their IgG’s, IgA’s and IgM’s (things that make up the immune system) from their mother’s colostrum after they are born.
      Here is the resource I linked in my article: http://www.vivo.colostate.edu/hbooks/pathphys/reprod/placenta/structure.html

      Hope this helps!

  3. I do agree with you that much of the industry functions in a humane way & often animal rights activists intentionally & misleadingly take things out of context for the purpose of shock value & to sway consumers. Unfortunately that is not always the case either. The Fair Life video is an example of that animal cruelty & it is important to weed out these criminal actors as well as protecting the industry.

    1. It really suprises me that the fair life deal is the only thing people are thinking about . 1 in how many farmers and that is how people are painting all farmers. Our kids have worked hard to have a 1.5 mortality rate per year or less.

      You shared a good article about it hope folks pay attention to what you are explaining.

    2. That video was made and sat on for months. Some of the so called fake employees who made that video were actually encouraging the farm workers to act the way they did. If this was so important for the makers of this video to expose ill treatment of the animals why did they take months to gather footage for their video? Why did they not report the employees who were doing the abuse? They did not want to report them cause they would not have the smear footage they needed to fit their agenda. These animal rights people are not what they are holding their self out to be.

      1. I know it can be tempting to blame the investigators because it means we farmers don’t have to take responsibility for our bad seeds, but the Fair Oaks president admitted the abuse happened and that’s good enough for me. They probably sat on the footage because they wanted to maximize the impact, and, good on them — it worked.

  4. Very informative but I have if separating the calves from the mother is better for the calves, why do cos call operations not do it? I grew up on a small beef cattle ranch and we would have to bottle feed one or two calves q year because their mothers would abandon them, especially if they were heifers, but ideally we would want every calf to stay with their mothers. So I guess I’m wondering is one actually better for the calf or is it just economics, with the ranchers not wanting to spend more money on power milk to bottle feed and dairy farmers not wanting calves to drink their product?

    1. Hi Jason!- It sounds like most of your experience is with beef cows, who are actually selectively bred for their mothering instincts. There are a number of very distinct differences between dairy and beef cows. Beef cows produce only enough milk to feed their calves, which is why they don’t have to be milked in a parlor (usually 1-2 gallons of milk a day). Dairy cows produce way more milk (8-10 gallons a day) than their calves can eat, which is why they are milked 2-3 times a day. Here is a great article explaining some more of the differences!
      http://kansasfarmfoodconnection.org/blog/2019/02/28/what%E2%80%99s-the-difference-between-beef-and-dairy-cattle?fbclid=IwAR2C41NVBFuMxZtpeqbE_nas5S7jAdAfDxrXZvtquDY6h0svoDGiHO-zbYM

    2. Because beef cows or scullers as we call them are bred for meat & have maternal instinct to rear their calf which dairy cows bred for milking do not. Hope that helps 😊

  5. Dairy cows have been bred for hundreds of years to give milk, and for their disposition. They will usually lick their calf, but the calf will not get up soon enough or drink enough to to maximize the effects of colostrum. When handling the new calf the cow is like meh. Do this to a beef calf and you better keep one eyeon the cow.

  6. You are full of BS the calves are fed the colostrum from the cow if we have any extra then we sell it but the calf gets enough first!! It’s sad if people actually believe any of the staged videos trying to ruin the dairy industry the so called employees are paid by people who dont know shit about farming and raising healthy cattle. This article is 100% TRUTH

  7. Wow!! And all these years we disposed of our colostrum. And could of made a fortune.
    Please provide details on the market and price for this high comodity!!

  8. I understand this concept, however, growing up on the dairy taught me many things. One was do NOT get between the calf and its mother while she in in a stanchion (=9 year old with 4 broken ribs, driven across the barn floor with one kick), secondly do not get between the calf and its mother in a field (=10 year old running for her life from Momma). Thirdly, when seperated expect to listen to them cry for each other…sometimes for weeks. So I respectfully disagree with your findings. Economy/politics dictate the post partum care, whats best generally for the cow and calf have nothing to do with it.

  9. Then why do you say “Beef calves are weaned from their mother’s milk at 6 to 10 months of age when they weigh between 450 and 700 pounds.”?

    Wouldn’t that be a “health and safety” issue for the beef calf as well? Since you mention that “things often do go wrong when the calf is left with the cow”. The beef cow couldn’t return to her happy place – her herd. The beef calves aren’t fed from a bottle or bucket to make sure they drink their milk and that it comes from a clean place. And you’re not able to monitor them very closely until their immune system develops

    1. Hi James,

      As we’ve stated both on our Facebook page and in the comments here, beef cows and dairy cows are also fundamentally different. Beef cows are actually bred to have extremely strong mothering instincts. There are a number of very distinct differences between dairy and beef cows. Beef cows produce only enough milk to feed their calves, which is why they don’t have to be milked in a parlor (usually 1-2 gallons of milk a day). Dairy cows produce way more milk (8-10 gallons a day) than their calves can eat, which is why they are milked 2-3 times a day. Here is a great article explaining some more of the differences!
      http://kansasfarmfoodconnection.org/blog/2019/02/28/what%E2%80%99s-the-difference-between-beef-and-dairy-cattle?fbclid=IwAR2C41NVBFuMxZtpeqbE_nas5S7jAdAfDxrXZvtquDY6h0svoDGiHO-zbYM

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