At a holiday party last fall I had a casual conversation about our farm with another local farmer’s wife whose exposure to agriculture was primarily related to raising grain and beef. She mentioned that her husband had somewhat explained to her why dairy farmers keep our newborn calves in hutches, but her original instincts, like many people’s, told her that it was cruel to separate a mother cow and her calf. I listed several of the reasons we do things the way that we do, highlighting some differences between dairy cows and beef cows at a cow-calf operation, and I think many of them were not part of her husband’s explanation and had not occurred to her.
I have previously written about the first few hours of a calf’s life on our farm (read: A Calf Is Born ), but at that time I didn’t address the why behind our actions. Based on the conversation mentioned above, I set out to write a post explaining the many reasons we house our calves in hutches (referred to as “huts” at our farm). I quickly realized, however, that I first needed to explain why we remove the calves from their mothers shortly after their birth before I could elaborate on their housing from that point forward. Contrary to what many may believe or infer, there are numerous benefits to separation for both the cow and the calf, as well as the obvious benefit to our business of milk production.
Benefits to the calf
When a calf is born, it can usually stand within the first hour of its life. Usually is a key word because for some calves it takes longer. A calf has to be able to stand in order to drink from its mother. When a calf drinks from its mother, it’s difficult to tell if the calf is getting enough to eat until it starts to gain or lose weight. By separating the pair and harvesting the colostrum for the calf, we can be sure that it gets plenty to eat very quickly after it’s born. Colostrum is the mother’s first milk, and it is crucial to the calf’s immunity. The quantity and quality of colostrum that the calf gets potentially impact its health for the rest of its life. Some cows don’t have enough colostrum or give colostrum that is lower quality. We reserve and freeze extra colostrum to feed in these situations so that every calf gets the antibodies it needs to jumpstart its immune system.
Additionally, some cows aren’t great mothers. Beef producers who do leave calves with cows have spent generations selecting for maternal traits in their breeding programs. Dairy farmers have not. We have some cows that are great mothers, but others seem to completely lack the instincts required to raise a calf. Those cows might not clean off their calves, and some will actually leave the calf lay to go eat or drink or whatever else might interest them more than feeding their newborn calf. We do prefer the mother to clean off her own calf before we separate them, but not all cows will even complete that first task of motherhood. In extreme cases, a cow will even step on or charge her own calf.
Benefits to the cow
As I mentioned, some cows aren’t really ready to be mothers. In these cases, attending to the calf is very stressful for the cow. Delivering the calf is significant stress on her body and caring for the calf immediately afterward can basically overwhelm her. This is especially true for a cow that had a particularly difficult calving or a cow that has delivered twins. One cow rarely handles two calves with grace.
In addition, dairy cows’ udders are not as durable as beef cows. Again, they have not generally been bred for calf-rearing abilities. Calves are born with teeth, and they are very sharp. Young calves also have pretty remarkable jaw strength. I’ve had bloody knuckles from letting a week-old calf suck on my fingers for a few seconds while training it to drink from a bucket. Besides their sharp teeth, a calf’s instinct to get more milk is to head-butt its mother’s udder. Most cows experience some swelling in their udder when they first freshen, and neither of these traits is going to be welcomed by a cow with a sore and swollen udder.
Separating dairy cows and calves reduces the risk of infection and disease. A dairy cow hopefully produces more milk than a beef cow, which is more milk than a single calf can drink. That’s how she pays her feed bill. If we were to leave the calf with the cow (thus, not milking her out), there is a good chance she would develop a mammary infection called mastitis. This infection could potentially be dangerous for both the cow and the calf that is drinking from an infected udder. If untreated, mastitis can even be fatal.
Speaking of infection, sanitation is also a huge benefit of this separation. By removing the calf quickly and spraying its naval with an iodine solution, we minimize the bacteria that enter its blood stream directly through its naval, where the umbilical cord was attached. We also minimize the bacteria that the calf ingests by feeding it using a clean bottle. Cows are all too well-known for their willingness to lay in manure, even when clean bedding is available. Any manure or bacteria on a cow’s udder would be ingested by the calf when it tried to drink. This is better for the cow as well. When a cow is milked, she is vulnerable to mammary infection through her teat ends. This is true whether we are milking her or her calf is drinking. The difference is that we clean and disinfect her teat ends both before and after milking, protecting her from such an infection and improving the quality of her milk.
Our motives for separating cows and calves are simple – we want to provide the best standard of care that we can for both animals. I can also assure you that the vast majority of cows don’t give a second thought to their calf once it is out of their sight. We as dairy farmers, on the other hand, put a lot of thought into calf care, and I’ll elaborate on that in Part 2 next week.