Separating dairy calves and dams: Pros and cons

When analyzing the milk production curve, as seen in Figure 1, a dairy cow’s milk cycle lasts for 305 days and begins once parturition occurs, lasting approximately 10 months. The last two months of the year (after the lactation curve) is known as the dry period, which allows the cow to rest and prepare for the next pregnancy. If the cow never becomes pregnant again, her milk production cannot begin again. She will be unable to produce milk and is therefore no longer useful in the dairy herd.

Separating dairy calves and dams: Pros and consKnowing how essential calves are for the dairy industry, it is a publicly controversial topic that many dairy farms separate calves from their mother within a few hours after birth. According to Le Cozler in a study published in the Journal of Agricultural Science, only 4% of farmers keep the calves with their dam for more than 24 hours, but the practice of maintaining their relationship is becoming much more popular as research expands. To some of the public’s eyes, separating the calf from the dam is cruel, as it is commonly compared to separating a human baby from their mother hours after birth. Other believe dairy cows are “forced” to become pregnant, whether by artificial insemination or by natural breeding, solely for the production of milk for human consumption. After growing and carrying the calf for over nine months and going through the strenuous birth process and recovery, the calf is “ripped away” from its mother so the mother can continue producing milk for profit until impregnated again. Then the cycle repeats. In a natural habitat (not in a production industry), a cow would give birth and raise the calf on its own, instead of having their natural connection interrupted by human involvement.

However, the dairy industry is convinced the separation of calves and dams is beneficial for various reasons. One known fact in the industry is that calves are born with immature immune systems, as during pregnancy, antibodies are unable to cross the placenta from the dam to the calf. When born, they have no immunity and must receive their first antibodies through colostrum from the dam. The dam does not need to physically be there with the calf to provide the antibodies, however. It is actually safer for the calf to be isolated during the first few days of life to limit exposure to germs and disease. Allowing calves to receive colostrum directly from the dams’ teats not only limits the farmer’s ability to check the quality of the colostrum, but it also decreases the cleanliness of the colostrum as the teat won’t be clean unless constantly disinfected.

When born, they have no immunity and must receive their first antibodies through colostrum from the dam. The dam does not need to physically be there with the calf to provide the antibodies, however. Photo by Kelsi Devolve

Not only does calf-dam contact increase the chance for disease in the calves, but the farmer risks the calf continuously nursing from the dam longer than it should. Considering the high nutritional and caloric density of the milk, the calf may suffer from nutritional and growth problems. Instead, calves are generally weaned at seven weeks of age or later, according to Penn State Extension. Weaning is an important stage of development, as removing milk access to the calf allows the cow to transfer the leftover nutrients to use for her own body function, helping her to maintain her body condition and prepare her for her next pregnancy and calving.

Farmers are also able to closely monitor and limit the food intake of calves in order to ensure proper growth and development by providing them feed themselves and not allowing the calf 24/7 access to the dam’s milk supply. Finally, the less time that the calf and dam have to socialize after birth, the easier and less stressful it will be on them to eventually separate to live with their own age groups.

There has been research that supports maintained calf-dam contact is beneficial in a few ways, but more research needs to be done to create a larger change in the dairy industry. It has been analyzed that calf-dam contact decreases cases of mastitis in the dams, as the calf suckles six to eight times a day from the dam, continually emptying her udder. The main push for maintaining calf-dam contact is due to public opinion. There is plenty more research to be done to fight for the relationship between calf and dam, but as of now, the large majority of the dairy industry will separate the calf from the dam at an early age for various health, mental and production reasons.

by Kelsi Devolve

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