Calving time – the milk of human unkindness?
It’s a fact of dairying life to take calves from their mothers. The industry insists the practice is not as cruel as it might seem, Esther Taunton writes.
Between 4.5 and 5 million calves will be born on dairy farms this season. Almost all will be taken away from their mothers the day they are born, and housed in separate pens.
It’s a dairying practice often questioned by non-farmers, and one that, put in a human context, can easily appear cruel. Animal welfare organisations such as Safe argue that the practice can create substantial distress for both mother and calf.
But it is a process that is essential for the dairy industry, and one that it insists it is better for the animals. Cows bred to produce large amounts of milk create more of it than a calf can possibly drink in a day.
Janet Schultz, Federated Farmers Taranaki dairy chairwoman, says cows experience the same discomfort as human mothers when their milk comes in, and a calf cannot drink enough to relieve the pain. ‘‘Milking them takes that pain and pressure away.’’
While a dairy cow can have 20 to 25 litres of milk in her udder, calves can drink only about five litres, Schultz says.
‘‘At the end of the day, the cow is producing so much milk, if she’s not taken away and milked she’s at risk of getting mastitis.’’
A potentially fatal inflammatory reaction in the udder tissue, mastitis is the most common disease in New Zealand dairy cattle. It can cost the industry up to $280 million a year in treatment, loss of milk production, labour, discarded milk and culling.
Although usually caused by bacteria entering through the teat canal and infecting the udder, mastitis can also develop when the udder is not completely drained.
Safe rejects animal welfare as a reason to separate cows and calves. Head of campaigns Marianne Macdonald says the dairy industry is inherently cruel and has brought the problems associated with higher production on itself.
‘‘Millions of cows are milked twice a day and plenty still get mastitis. But by selectively breeding them to have unnaturally high production, the industry is adding to the problem.’’
Once removed from their mothers, calves are placed in a sheltered pen or shed with bedding – usually woodchip, sawdust or shavings – and fed regularly, beginning with colostrum.
‘‘Most cows produce colostrum for the first four days, or eight milkings after calving, although heifers [first-time calvers] can hold their milk for up to 10 days,’’ Schultz says. ‘‘Fonterra doesn’t want colostrum but it’s gold for calves, it gives them everything they need.’’
Because the placenta doesn’t allow the transfer of antibodies, also known as immunoglobulins, from mother to foetus during pregnancy, calves are born with poorly developed immune systems. Colostrum is rich in nutrients and the antibodies that provide the calf protection from diseases until its own immune system takes over.
About 30 per cent of the calves born this year will be raised as replacement dairy cattle and 30 per cent for beef. The remainder – all males – will be ‘‘bobby’’ calves, surplus to requirements, and destined for an early death.
From four days old, bobbies are transported and slaughtered for meat (veal) and other animal products, including rennet for dairy products, skins for leather, and blood for pharmaceuticals or for use in laboratories.
According to Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) statistics, more than 1.77m calves were sent to the freezing works last year and another
34,510 were processed for pet food. A total of 1100 bobby calves
(0.06 per cent) died on the way to the works, down from 5390 (0.25 per cent) in 2016.
Following an outcry from animal rights activists and damaging film of calves being thrown into trucks in 2015, MPI tightened rules around the care and transport of bobbies.
MPI says industry groups responded positively to the changes and that, coupled with an increase in monitoring and compliance action, was responsible for the drop in mortality.
The number of bobbies sent to the works also fell in 2017, which MPI attributed to a decrease in the size of the national dairy herd and fewer calves overall.
Farmers are also looking at ways to reduce the number of surplus cows born on their farms, Schultz says. ‘‘Some are using sexed semen, others are rearing calves for beef.’’
Sexed semen is touted as raising the likelihood of a female calf to as high as 90 per cent, but is more expensive than normal artificial insemination.
However, Schultz says many farmers want to see the conception rate improve before making the switch. ‘‘On average, the conception rate for standard insemination is 60 to 70 per cent but, with sexed semen, it’s about 40 per cent at the moment. So although there’s a higher chance of a heifer calf if insemination is successful, there’s also a higher chance of no calf at all.’’
The dairy industry needs cows that have given birth to get back in-calf in time for the next calving season, or they will not continue to produce milk.
‘‘Production will slowly start going backwards if you just keep milking a cow,’’ Schultz says. ‘‘There’s not enough land to let them stay dry. They become a cost, using feed and manpower and not producing.’’
Some ‘‘empties’’ – those that do not get in-calf – are kept. ‘‘We keep some holdovers because of higher genetics, and others because there are different reasons for being empty.
‘‘The weather can impact incalf rates or she might have had a hard calving last time and not be healed properly.’’
About 30 per cent of the calves born this year will be raised as replacement dairy cattle and 30 per cent for beef. The remainder are destined for the works.