Cow-Calf Separation: Cruelty or Necessity?

Tuesday, May 21:

Mama Annie had her new calf – a heifer! 😍 – sometime over night between Sunday and Monday. When we came to the barn Monday morning, the calf was standing, all fluffy and dry after being thoroughly licked clean by her mama. However, it did not appear that she had nursed; her tummy was flat and she was bawling periodically. We milked Annie in the parlour, then bottle fed her colostrum to her very hungry calf. The two have been together since then and we have not yet observed the calf to be nursing, so like always, we feed her her mama’s milk with a bottle. We will move her to the calf nursery later today – about 36 hours after birth.

This is Annie’s second calf. As you can see in the video, Annie is not afraid of her farmer. Her calf, curious and precocious, runs up to the camera, perhaps thinking it is feeding time again. Annie watches, but she’s not nervous or overly protective. She knows from experience that her farmers will care for her and her calf with compassion, affection, and respect. When the time comes to move her calf to our comfortable calf nursery, we will do so calmly and gently. If Annie’s behaviour thus far is any indication – she’s been more interested in munching on feed at the feed bunk than in her calf – it will be the typical relaxed and stress free event it always is.

Wednesday, May 22:

Separating cows and calves is an emotionally loaded subject. Why? Because the reasons for and realities of the practice are not widely understood.

Too often, we attach our own emotions to animals, and while of course it is obvious that cows experience pain, fear, joy, and other emotions, they do not have exactly the same needs and preferences that humans do.

They don’t crave stimulating conversation, “Netflix and chill”, quality time with their spouse, a bed with blankets and sheets, nor many other human desires.

Coming from a non-dairy background myself, I at first was taken aback at the practise of separating cows and calves within a day or two after birth. Growing up, our beef cows spent several months with their calves until weaning time, and weaning was no fun: bawling calves & cows meant little sleep for the first few nights. However, once I saw for myself how neither the dairy cows nor their calves were unduly disturbed by the separation, my feelings changed.

It’s like this: in a beef herd, good mothering instincts are a desirable trait. A beef cow that isn’t a good mother won’t last long on a beef ranch; she must take excellent care of her calf out on the range when contact with the rancher is sporadic – or her calf will die. In dairy, however, the farmer is much more present and involved in all aspects of the cow’s day to day life and so it is easy to step in if the cow is not caring for her calf. This means that over the generations, good mothering instincts have not really been a factor when choosing desirable traits. Rather, calving ease, milk production, udder traits, feet and legs traits, longevity, and other “good milk cow” characteristics have been at the forefront of most breeding decisions. That mothering instinct has mostly been lost.

I’ve seen cows neglect their calves, more often than you can imagine. Others, like Annie here, will clean their calf after birth but not allow it to suckle. I’ve even seen cows attack their calves. Dairy cows are, by and large, just not the greatest mothers. Yes, we’ve had some cows that are better at caring for their calves. But even these cows react in the same way as you’ll see in this video. We’ve even occasionally experimented with keeping some of those cow calf pairs together in the herd. Do you know what happened? The cows pretty much ignored their calves and the calves began to treat the entire herd as their own personal milk smorgasbord, nursing from numerous cows in the herd. Yeah, not an ideal situation in the least!

Let me conclude with this: cows trust their farmers and are honestly more interested in access to food and water and spending time with the herd than in the wellbeing of their calf. The calf is well cared for as well, and showered with attention and affection. Both thrive. Both are happy. And that’s our goal as farmers: happy, healthy animals.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record (I know we stress this often), remember that the best source of info about animal agriculture will ALWAYS be where it all happens: the farm. Have any questions about cow-calf separation or any other farming practice? Please ask!

Unsettling but Inaccurate Headlines

Most mornings I enjoy my first cup of coffee while scrolling through my social media feeds, catching up on the latest news stories. This morning’s routine wasn’t the usual enjoyable practice it normally is. A fellow BC dairy farmer messaged me, asking if I had read this article: http://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/foi-documents-show-over-25-per-cent-of-b-c-dairy-farms-failed-inspection. I hadn’t, and the headline alone was enough to shock me.
If you’re new to this page, you might not know about the horrific animal abuse case that rocked our local dairy industry two years ago. That incident, now before the courts, prompted our provincial dairy authorities to fast track the BC dairy industry’s compliance to the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle; we wanted to show our consumers that proper animal care is of supreme importance to dairy farmers. Already slated to be rolled out across Canada in 2017, this new segment of our national ProAction initiative deals with the proper care and handling of all animals on dairy farms, including housing, feed, medical treatment, and transport of cows, calves, and bulls. As of October 2014, compliance to the Code was mandatory and preliminary inspections began in January 2015. Over the following 18 months, 73 of BC’s nearly 500 dairy farms were inspected as the program began to get underway. Once the program is fully implemented, 250 dairy farms will be inspected every year. 
So what does this inspection involve? Well, our farm was inspected this past Spring under the new animal welfare guidelines in conjunction with our annual milk safety/quality re-certification. An inspector came out to our farm, walked through our barns, and looked over our Standard Operating Procedures. The inspection of the SOPs – documents that detail exactly what steps must be taken during farming practices such as transport, health care, downed cows, and euthanasia – was the most comprehensive. As the program really starts to get under way and is rolled out across the rest of the country, herds will be more closely inspected by trained verification officers to document animal cleanliness, lameness, and other health issues. I’m proud to say that our farm passed our first inspection with flying colours. 
The headline of this article boldly proclaiming that one quarter of the farms inspected in the last year failed to pass this inspection startled me. Did this mean that 25% of our local dairy farms are not treating their animals humanely? Was I wrong or naive to believe that our neighbouring farmers are committed to the same standards of excellence in animal care as we are? Thankfully this is not the case. After reading the article several times, I contacted one of the farmers the reporter had quoted, asking if the article was accurate. This was his response: “The article was accurate. But he did not say that 90 percent were Standard Operating Procedure issues and the rest various stuff but not any real animal care issues.” I was relieved and my faith in our industry strengthened once more. Paperwork is paperwork: important, but not directly related to or indicative of the care cows receive on BC dairy farms. Obviously several of the farms had stocking density issues and one had a problem with lameness, as documented by the reporter, but the vast majority of the non-compliances were the result of incomplete paperwork, not animal welfare issues. That’s not to say that the problems the reporter outlined are not serious and should not be dealt with — they are and they must — but by and large, BC dairy farmers are doing a great job taking care of their cows. 
As with any new program, it will take time for all parties to come into compliance. Many farms are in the process of building larger facilities to elimate overcrowding and mitigate lameness issues – we did this too in part in anticipation of this new program. As for the farm manuals and SOPs, the issue at hand is the lack of time (due to the fast-tracked implementation) to explain to farmers how to implement written farm-specific standard operating procedures. It’s a learning curve for all farmers, and a real time commitment to get all of these procedures written down correctly. A similar situation occurred with earlier ProAction segments, with several farmers dragging their heels before coming into compliance with the milk quality and safety SOPs and requirements. I’m confident that with time and industry incentives, all BC dairy farmers will soon be on board.


It might just be my take on the article, but I found that the author imparted a cold and detached air when he wrote about common farming practices, not acknowledging in the slightest the affection farmers have for their cows. His information is factual for the most part, but lacked the warmth and affection that farmers feel for their cows. Judging by the comments, the readers appear to have noticed this and that’s very unfortunate. You all know from what we share about our cows just how important they are to us, not just as our source of income, but for the intelligent, affectionate, unique animals they are. Take Victoria, for instance. Due to deliver her 7th calf any day, this nine-year-old beauty presides over her calving pen with an air of authority befitting her queenly name. There’s no coldness or lack of affection towards her or any of her bovine herd mates, just as there is likely to be no apathy towards these animals on any good dairy farm. As Mr Hoogendoorn states so clearly in the video attached to the article: “If we didn’t care for these animals, believe me, we wouldn’t be farming”. Please follow his urging, and mine: “If anyone is concerned how their food is produced, please, come out to the farm.” If you have concerns about farming, go to those directly involved. Ask a farmer. We’re more than willing to answer your questions!

Video

Happy Cows’ First Day on Pasture

Today is my most favourite day of the entire year: the first day that our “girls” go out to pasture! We’ve had a gorgeous stretch of warm weather, and the cows have been eagerly awaiting this day, often gazing longingly at the lush pasture through the opened curtain barn walls. Now that the sogginess left by our winter rains has lessened, we’re able to give our girls access to the outdoors once again.

Every year I’m amazed at how our cows understand what’s happening as soon as we walk to the back of the barn and talk to them in a “going to pasture” tone of voice. They all crowd to the back of the barn, so aware of what is going to take place. Their intelligence is quite astounding!

And then, that moment that the gate is opened and they gallop out of the barn, displaying such infectious joy. It’s pure bliss, and it’s one of the happiest sights in the world.

(If the video does not play, follow this link to the YouTube version: Cows to pasture)

I’ll admit that I had a permanent grin plastered over my face for the rest of the day, and that I’ve watched and re-watched this video more times than I should admit. But I think it’s pretty understandable: anyone who loves cows enjoys seeing them happy and content.

#happycows #happyfarmer