How can it be right to quickly take away the calf from the cow? | Belicons

How can it be right to quickly take away the calf from the cow?

Posted on: 
Monday 18 April 2016

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How can it be right to quickly take away the calf from the cow?

Photographer: Wikipedia, Uberprutser

On 9 February 2016 the Dutch House of representatives has accepted a motion of the political party Partij voor de dieren (Party for the animals). In this motion the Dutch government is being told to develop a plan in the next 6 months in which all Dairy farms will be enabled to keep the calves longer together with their mother cow.

Then on Tuesday April 12 I saw a news story on Nieuwsuur (Text link in Dutch) in which many arguments against this motion were mentioned. I thought this news story was very irritating. Finally our House of representatives is trying to make the life of some animals in factory farming a little better and Nieuwsuur argues against it.

Somehow the arguments sounded logical too, that made it even more irritation. However, my intuition tells me that it cannot be that it is better to separate mother and child as soon as possible after birth. There must be more to it. But what? I cannot get to the nub of this matter as yet. Let’s take another look at the news story.

Peiling: Boeren moeten manieren vinden om kalfjes langer bij de koe te kunnen houden

Peiling: Boeren moeten manieren vinden om kalfjes langer bij de koe te kunnen houden

Lees de blog bij deze peiling

Poll: Farmers put more effort in trying to keep the cow and calf together

Poll: Farmers put more effort in trying to keep the cow and calf together

Read the blog that goes with this poll

Body 2: 

In this news story Marianne Thieme of the Party for the animals first tells us why this motion is important to her. She says that keeping the calf longer with the mother cow is more natural and healthy for them. This sounds very logical to me so far. But then lecturer animal welfare Hans Hopster tells us about his research about this idea and his conclusions are very different from those of Marianne Thieme. Nieuwsuur lists the arguments:

Arguments to separate cow and calf quickly after birth:

  • There is a danger that the mother cow will transmit diseases to the calf when they spend too much time together.
  • The calf needs a certain amount of colostrum in the first few hours and days after birth in order to build-up their immune system. When farmers let this process happen naturally then they don't know whether the intake of the calves is sufficient.
  • When the calf spends more time with its mother, then it is at risk to get hurt. The cow could for example step upon the calf.
  • Farmer Agnes de Boer says in the news story that she noticed that when the cow and calf are separated after a few weeks, the calf gives the farmer a hard time to be taken away. And the cow keeps on howling for her child.

In order to back up the mentioned arguments, they show the results of a poll among farmers:

  • 75% is against keeping the caw and calf longer together
  • 85% says that it doesn't fit to the operational management of their farms
  • 65% thinks that the consumer should pay for the extra costs for keeping cow and calf together longer

Subsequently, the camera goes to back Marianne Thieme. She says that it is logical to her that the farmers react in this way. It doesn't fit to the current operational management of farms. They have invested in the present way is farming and they don't like when they should change that. But according to Thieme we should adapt the system to the cow and not adapt the cow to the system.

Since the mentioned arguments sound very logical, I first want to know why they feel this way.

Questioning the arguments

  1. Why is it possible on other farms?

    In the news story we also see farm Zonnehoeve of Piet IJzerdoorn where the calves do stay longer with their mother cow. And in nature it doesn't seem to be a problem either. Why is this only a problem on dairy farms?

  2. The cow shows something differently

    And then my intuition. Just look at this video. How can one argue that this can be good for the mother cow and the calf? I'm not reassured yet.

  3. The principle ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’ is true is this case too

    The research of Hans Hopster was carried out at the request of the dairy industry. If they pay for this research, they want some results they like. So I think that there is reason to call this research into question.

So it's all about amounts

While I'm thinking about this in this way, it seems to me that Marianne Thieme is perfectly correct when she says that all arguments are part of a response from the current operational management of farms. The dairy industry is an economic industry. They want to earn as much money possible with their milk.

This means that it's all about amounts in this industry:

  • They put as many cows and calves in a very small space.
  • The calves have to stay alone in a pen, so that they, for example, won't drink the urine of other calves because of their reflex to suck on something.
  • Cows must produce as much milk as possible.
  • Farmers want to earn as much money per cow possible in order to manage their farm.

It is clear that these cows are an economical product in this industry. And each entrepreneur wants their company to be as efficient as possible. This means that the costs should be kept as low as possible and they should try to make as much money out of each cow possible. And when all cows are very close together in a small space, then the chance that they hurt little calves and transmit diseases is big.

But what if the cows and calves are not seen in the first instance as an economic product, but as animals that they should treat with respect? Animals that have feelings and that need space. Then we get a different perspectives on the used arguments.

Another look at the amounts:

  • When cow and calf have more space, they will be healthier and have less chance to transmit diseases to each other.
  • Why are we actually so afraid that the calf will not get enough colostrum? Delivering calves and feeding them is something that a cow does. But entrepreneurs (in this case the farmers) don't like processes they cannot control precisely. Therefore, they want to control the exact amount of colostrum intake of the calf. The calf is an economic product and farmers want to get the maximum economic value from that calf.

    Separate the animal from others and control everything is better from an economic perspective. But not better for the happiness / welfare of the animal itself. In most instances the calves will get enough colostrum, but some may not. In that last case the calf may be a bit weaker than others. But that is a part of the deal of having a biological product, in this case an animal.

  • Many cows in a small space means that they can hurt each other. But when they have more space, then the chance that this goes wrong is much smaller.
  • When they have more space, the cows won’t only be healthier, but also happier, because they are social animals. Then they may not have to be separated at all, or only after such a long time that it isn’t that stressful any more.

In the dairy industry as it is now, cows sometimes cannot stand on their legs any more because their bones are too weak.

Let's just accept that a cow is an animal and not a product that we should make produce as much as possible. Cows should not produce more milk than the amount that is healthy for them.

One can look at this differently: Why do we want to make many animals happy by locking them up together with many other animals in a small space just to save the lives of a few animals? It's part of nature that some animals die early and thus it is also part of this industry.

In the news story there was a also remark that some calves drowned in a ditch and that two calves broke their necks while playing. That is sad of course, but something that can happen when one keeps living animals. The problem is that the dairy industry wants to earn as much money from one calf and when they die they'll never produce milk. That is loss of an economic product.

How can the farmers survive then?

Of course all farmers in the dairy industry want to earn enough money to be able to manage their farms. But when all dairy farms start working in this way, the price of milk will go up and if we are wiling to pay that price, then the farmers will earn enough money for their companies.

This raises the following questions: When milk will cost more money, isn't that bad for our health? We need milk for our intake of calcium and protein, right? Is the current operational management on dairy farms then not just a necessary evil for us human beings?

No, we do not necessarily need milk. There are even signs that it is better to get our calcium and protein from different sources, like (dark green) greens, whole grain products and nuts. So paying more for milk and drinking less is not only good for the cows, but also for us.

This all gives us a very different perspective on the arguments that are mentioned in the news story. In order to keep cows and calves longer together safely, it is necessary to give them a lot more space. This will mean that the price of milk will go up. But since we don’t need milk, we can pay a little more and drink a little less without any problems. Then we can be sure that it is good for the cows, calves and us human beings.

What do you think? Do we need to pay more for our milk so that the diary industry can become more animal friendly? Or do you have a different opinion? Share your opinion below or on the forum.

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