Newborn calves on dairy farms are routinely isolated from their mothers at birth as a way of preserving their health. Dairy Farmers are in agreement that this separation technique will keep the youngsters from getting sick, unlike their counterparts who stay with the mother cow for the first eight weeks to eight months. The newborn calves are placed in their own pens for the duration of six to eight weeks and bottle fed a couple of times a day. It has been shown that disease spreads rapidly through a herd of cattle. Those two months alone are meant to keep the vulnerable calf isolated from bacteria and dangerous pathogens that can cause death in the young calf; after a couple of months, they can join the herd.
It all sounds good and reasonable on paper, but what about the baby calf who is forced to live alone in a cold, unfamiliar world without the security and care of its mother? Calves raised on dairy farms rarely get to drink the mother cow’s milk. That milk is for human consumption. But it is common for the newborn calves to be fed up to a gallon of colostrum, whether from their own mother or another cow, within twenty-four hours of their birth. This provides that initial boost of nutrients to their system, which they can absorb. Within two hours after they are born, the calves are vaccinated and taken from their mothers. They will be bottle fed milk made from powder or a baby calf formula.
According to most dairy farmers, the maternity stalls where the cows birth their young become so dirty, that exposing the baby calves to such large amounts of infectious bacteria has been shown to increase the calves’ risk of contracting Cryptosporidium infection or respiratory disease. Calves allowed to stay with their mothers for as little as even a couple of hours were at much higher risk for infection than the ones removed immediately after birth. It is a proven fact that a higher percentage of dairy cows, as opposed to beef cows experience very high rates of mastitis, Johne’s Disease, and bovine leukemia, to name a few. Removing the baby calves from their mothers at birth, and therefore, from the infectious environment seems like an ideal solution to the issue of keeping the baby healthy. But what kind of side effects have been discovered as a result of this practice?
Studies have revealed that a baby calf separated from its mama and raised in isolation for the first two months of its life will deprive the baby of the chance to reach its full potential. When comparing calves raised in pairs to calves that grew up completely alone, it has been shown that the solitary calf will not develop as fast as the paired calves, nor will the calf respond well, or easily, to other calves. When it comes to outside stimuli, the solitary calf exhibits uncertainty and hesitance. In fact, these loners appeared slower to learn and adapt than the calves who grew up with a pen mate and were exposed to activity from birth. Some of the cognitive skills were lacking in calves that did not experience the natural bond with their mother or a pen mate.
According to the Journal of Dairy Science, it is not only the calves that suffer the emotional anxiety from being separated from their mothers, but apparently, the more calves a female cow births, the more oxytocin and primiparous the mother acquires, which bonds her even more to her calf. Yanking her baby from her at birth highly traumatizes the mother, as well as the baby calf. As with humans, animals form bonds with their young, just as the babies become attached to their mothers. The calves left with the mother cow for several months were much more sociable with others of their age, as well as gaining more weight in the first few months.
It has been observed that the mothers of these stolen calves showed definite signs of mourning their loss and suffering great emotional distress. They have been reported bellowing loudly for hours when the calf has not returned to the pen, hanging their heads as though dejected. Many have been seen lingering at the door where the calf was last seen, or disinterested in food for days at a time.
It would appear that much of the reasoning behind separating the calves from their mothers is to make a profit. When all is said and done, the female calves will remain on the dairy farm, grow up and produce more calves, which will be taken from them at birth; the males will be sent to slaughter for that lean, tender cut of veal. The cow’s milk will be homogenized, pasteurized, and packaged for supermarkets.
by Christine Schlichte
Journal of Animal Science