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!

Supply Management IV: will new NAFTA be our nemesis? 

Some of you have been asking for our thoughts on the latest news coming out of the NAFTA negotiations. And honestly? I’ve been too disheartened to even write about it. We’re scared. Scared about our futures, scared about our children’s futures. As relatively new additions to the dairy industry – we’ve been dairying for less than 15 years, only 6.5 years on our own – we carry a massive debt load. That’s all fine and dandy under the stability of our supply management system, and it should be paid off before our children would potentially take over the reins of the family farm. However, should that stability vanish, as the latest US demands for the abolishment of our entire system would entail, our farm would very possibly cease to exist. 

And why? Our system ensures a stable, fair price for farmers. It also has meant that consumers – and we’re consumers too! – have paid a competitive, fair price for dairy products in the grocery stores. It has allowed Canadian farmers to develop a top notch program that ensures that our dairy farms are held to the highest milk quality, food safety, and animal welfare standards in the world. Our system has helped hundreds of young and not-so-young dairymen and women get a leg up into the industry through various provincial new entrant programs. There are so many benefits to our system! Is it perfect? No! But it’s always changing and adapting to new situations. And quite frankly, it’s the best system out there. Around the world, dairy farmers are struggling to make ends meet. In New Zealand, Australia, the UK, Europe, and the USA dairy farmers are exiting the industry in droves, no longer able to keep their farms afloat after sustained low global milk prices. 

So why attack our industry? It doesn’t make sense to me. The world is awash in a glut of milk. Farmers around the world have been producing more and more milk, all just trying to make ends meet. But now there’s a huge over-supply. Canada’s market look mighty attractive; a good place to dump that excess. But that won’t solve the problem! With only 30 million consumers, 10x LESS than the US, our market would quickly be saturated with this foreign milk, and the problem would still be there. Except now, our small Canadian family farms would be forced out of business, unable to compete with the glut of milk pouring over the border at abnormally low prices. Our complete rural fabric would be torn apart. It’s not just the farmers who would suffer; it would be the feed companies, the veterinarians, the dairy supply companies. In short, it would mean large scale devastation of many rural communities. Instead, these governments eyeing up and demanding the end of our system should fix their problems at home. Manage your supply. There’s no need to over-produce; it’s just plain wasteful and it’s detrimental to the global dairy industry. When supply and demand are balanced, we all win: farmers, consumers, governments, and national economies. 

We’ll be watching the next NAFTA negotiation rounds with bated breath. We are most definitely thankful that so far our government has been vocal about their determination to protect supply management, and we hope and pray that these words will be reflected in their actions at the negotiating table. To our supporters: thank you. Thank you for your moral support. And thank you for continuing to support your local dairy farms with your purchasing habits. We wouldn’t be farming and living this dairy life, caring for our cows with dedication without you behind us! 

For now, we continue on. Our kids still follow us around the barns, helping out when they so wish, learning to do by doing. Will this knowledge and these skills ever be put to use one day? Will they ever follow their dreams to be just like mom and dad? I don’t know. Time will tell. 

Milk Myths Debunked – Part Two: Are dairy barns dirty and overcrowded?

If you have ever searched for information about dairy farming online,  I’m sure you have noticed this common theme in the claims put forward by animal rights groups: a lack of understanding of animal confinement. It’s not uncommon to hear/read activists’ remarks similar to this: “Animals should not be confined in barns, but should be free to roam where they please.” or “Confining animals in crammed and dirty barns is inhumane.” or “Dirty and unsanitary barns lead to disease epidemics in dairy herds, requiring constant antibiotic treatment.”

Yesterday, the absurdity of these claims struck me once again. It was time for our regular “changing of the girls’ sheets”, aka putting a new, fresh layer of aromatic and soft wood shavings in the cows’ stalls. Because the weather has been quite dry for a few weeks, we’ve been able to allow the girls some outdoor access, and so yesterday was a prime time for them to get out to stretch their legs while we gave them new bedding. After we were done with bedding, we opened the barn gate. The girls ignored us and stayed out in the paddock, enjoying the fresh air. But less than 15 minutes later it began to snow lightly. I watched with interest: for many of our girls, this was their first experience of snow, so how would they react? Our mild West Coast winters mean that snowfalls here are very few and far between. Our cows weren’t quite sure what to make of this white stuff! As the snow began to fall more thickly, the wind began to whip around the corner of the barn, causing me to shiver in my thick barn coat and I wasn’t surprised to see our ladies make their way rather quickly into the barn. I smiled as I watched many of them make their way to the stalls, settle down into the soft and fluffy new bedding and begin chewing their cud contentedly, while others headed off to the feed bunk to munch on their ration of corn silage, grass silage, hay and grains. It was so very obvious to me that our cows love their barn and enjoy spending time there!

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These cows weren’t too happy out in the wind and snow!

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Our barn has stalls for 91 cows. Currently, there are 85 cows in this barn.

 

Animal rights activists fail to understand that allowing cows access to the outdoors is all well and good, but cows also require shelter from the elements, even here in our mild and temperate climate, but more especially in areas that experience harsher extremes. And that’s why farmers take care to ensure that their barns are comfortable, clean and safe places for cows to spend their days. Here in BC and soon all across Canada, adherence to the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle is now mandatory. This Code is extremely comprehensive and deals extensively with all aspects of animals care, from animal housing, feeding, and health care  to animal welfare. All farms across Canada will be regularly inspected to ensure compliance with this Code.

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Monica soaking up the rays in her comfortable stall.

In regards to animal housing, the Code states that “housing must allow cattle to easily stand up, lie down, adopt normal resting postures, and have visual contact with other cattle. Cattle must have a bed that provides comfort, insulation, warmth, dryness and traction.” In addition, the Code demands that cows not be overcrowded. As organic farmers, we are required to also abide by these regulations. In the case of stocking density, the Organic Standards supersede the Code and require a less dense stocking rate. Barn cleanliness is also dealt with in the Code, which requires that manure is removed regularly and thoroughly. Each farm will be subject to inspections which will score the farm on the cleanliness of their cows. “Cleanliness scoring of dairy cattle is a tool for measuring environmental cleanliness and the relative risks for … diseases.” I have visited many dairy farms, and I know that farmers are committed to providing a comfortable and sanitary home for their cows. This Code will likely not require any changes on these farms, nor on ours, because we already comply with these standards, but it does make it apparent that farmers and our national dairy board take proper animal housing very seriously.

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Our calves’ housing environment is important too! Cleanliness and comfort are top priority.

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Food is produced in our milking parlour – cleanliness is both necessary and mandatory!

In addition to the Code of Practice, Canadian dairy farms are also required to be certified by the Canadian Quality Milk program, an on-farm food safety program to help producers prevent and reduce food safety hazards and risks on their farms. In order to be in compliance with the CQM program, dairy producers monitor critical areas and implement best management practices, including, among others, sanitizing the milking equipment and making sure their wash water is clean. Farms are inspected to ensure compliance and to guarantee a safe product for consumers.

I recently discussed our commitment to our cows’ welfare with an animal rights activist. In our discussion, she purported that our farm was an anomaly. She couldn’t believe that farms like ours are the norm, not the exception. Our farm is not unusual. It’s just a normal farm, typical of the family farms that dot the landscape across our country. So why do people have a hard time believing this? Unfortunately, it is because it is so difficult for consumers to find real information about real farms. When trying to find information about dairy farming online, one is bombarded with biased information from animal rights groups crying murder, rape, and general animal abuse. It’s no wonder that consumers can become concerned and even disgusted, especially if this type of information meant to further the animal rights groups’ agenda is all that can be found! To help to combat this type of information, I’d like to invite you, my fellow farmers, to share stories and photos of your happy cows in your comfortable and clean barns. By doing so, we can work together to dispel the myths and lies that surround our beautiful way of life and perhaps renew a consumer’s disenchanted outlook on dairy farming and spark a new appreciation for dairy products.