What happens to dairy cow’s calves?
After this post, I thought I should write a post that explains what happens to dairy cow’s calves after birth. Taking calves away from cows is a common practice on dairy farms, and the reasons for separating cows and calves is based on a mixture of science, experience and what works for individual farms.
When I had Silas, my oldest son, I only knew about lactation when it came to cows and I didn’t really understand what parts of that knowledge applied to humans as well. Right after he was born I was really concerned about the amount of colostrum he was getting. I found it really odd that the lactation consultant, who was awesome, wasn’t super concerned like I was. It prompted me to do more research on the differences between humans and calves when it comes to lactation and colostrum. Yes, I am that big of a nerd. Plus I needed something to keep myself awake while Silas stayed attached to me for hours at a time in the middle of the night. A girl can only play so much Candy Crush, right?
Colostrum is super important.
This is what I found out. Unlike human babies who receive the majority of the antibodies that will help them build their immune system while still in the womb, calves do not. There is plenty of research that shows human babies getting colostrum can have a positive affect on their immune system, but in calves it is absolutely vital to their future that they get colostrum. Unlike humans, calves rely on what is called passive transfer from colostrum to build the majority of their immune system. At birth a calf has the ability to take those antibodies that come in colostrum in through their intestines, but that can only happen in the first 48 hours of life. Once the calf is born the window starts closing, so the sooner they get colostrum the better.
What that means on the farm is that when a calf is born we want to make sure the calf not only gets colostrum right away, we also want to make sure it gets enough colostrum and that the colostrum it receives has lots of good antibodies in it.
In order to do that we milk the cow and collect her milk into a special pail that has been sanitized. Then we test the colostrum to make sure it has enough antibodies. If the cow doesn’t have the best colostrum we throw it away. Then the calf gets either frozen colostrum that met our standards from a cow that milked more than her calf could drink or a powdered mix that is made out of dried colostrum from donor cows instead.
If we left the cow and the calf together and had the calf nurse from the cow, there wouldn’t be a way for us to know for sure how much colostrum the calf drank or how high of quality the colostrum was that the calf was drinking.
It’s safer for the calf.
After a cow has a calf, we let the cow lick off the calf while we get her some electrolytes (I call it Cow Gatorade) to drink to help her recover from giving birth. We also get oral vaccinations ready for the calf that we give before the calf gets it’s colostrum.
Letting the cow lick off the calf not only helps the calf not be a big ball of goo, it also helps stimulate the calf to get up. But it is also risky for a few reasons. After thousands of years of selectively breeding for dairy cows that don’t try to kill humans who are trying to care for cows and calves, dairy cows generally aren’t very maternal.
Sometimes the cow has a calf, abandons it and doesn’t lick it off. When that happens we step in and use towels to dry the calf off. Sometimes cows will step on, stomp, lay on or crush their calf, which is one more reason we remove them. As a farmer it is so hard to see a new little calf’s life cut short by it’s own mother. It doesn’t happen often but when it does I feel so much guilt for not being able to save the calf.
Our calves are healthier when they don’t live with the cows.
New moms protect their babies by asking people to not kiss their babies and making sure everyone washes their hands before touching the baby. Cows do none of that. Cows aren’t an animal that will go to one area of the barn or pasture to poop. Instead they let it rip anywhere. That means newborn calves are exposed to potentially bacteria right from the start. We do a lot of work to make sure the area our cows deliver in is clean, but there isn’t a way for areas to be and remain sterile if a cow is living in it.
When a kid goes to school for the first time, often times they get sick a lot because they are being exposed to all kinds of different viruses and bacteria. I can say from personal experience, the first year of Silas going to 3K has had a negative effect on the health of everyone in our family. We have all been sick with multiple colds and a few tummy bugs.
Removing the calf from the maternity area soon after birth lessens the calf’s exposure to bacteria. On our farm and many others, after a calf is born it spends the next 8ish weeks living in a calf hutch. You can learn more about them HERE. These first weeks of life is when their immune system is growing stronger. Having them in their own pen allows us to monitor them for any signs of illness. It allows us to make sure they are eating and growing well.
Like kids, illness spreads quickly in baby calves. The big difference is that while a kid at school may catch a cold from another kid and be sick for a week, thanks to vaccinations it’s rare that a life threatening illness spreads through a classroom. That is not the case with calves. When calves get sick, generally we are dealing with illnesses that are much more serious than the common cold.
Making sure each calf gets good colostrum right away, that they aren’t hurt or killed by cows and limiting their exposure to bacteria and viruses is what we do to make sure our calves get the best start possible. Want to know more about what happens to dairy cow’s calves? Check out this post about what happens to male calves on dairy farms or this post that explains how and why we dehorn calves.
Robin L Zdroik
Thank you very much for this informational article. Thank God for farmers.
Douglas L McNally
Wonderfully written. Very knowledgable about calf health. Thank you
My daughter, who is an Ag student at NCSU has told me all of this and more and it makes me respect farmers and ranchers that much more. Uninformed people just like to hear the sound of their own voices and will not take the time to be educated. This needs to be shown as a power point at the Oscars and every other event that the Hollywood elite gather at. I would venture to say that most of them have never stepped in a cow cookie or even smelled the sweetness of a farm with all of its “trappings.” Give me that kind of life any day! Kudos for spreading the word about the herd!
Sadly the big mass dairy farms producing the milk you can buy in Walmart for example dont care so much for their cows and calves. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/best-advice-u-s-dairy-farmers-sell-out-fast-you-n887941
That’s not true on either front. The milk on the shelves at Walmart is the same as any other store and comes from farms of all sizes. And farm size does not dictate how well cows are cared for.
I Googled, why are calves taken from their mothers on dairy farms, and your article popped up. I want to thank you. I wondered why a cow wouldnt nurse the calf and why they were removed from their mother. Now understanding, cows are not maternal and I was anthropomorphizing my feelings on a cow, has eased my worries and concerns. Also, the infections and bacteria that they can suffer from being in the herd, makes me glad we have farmers/ranchers like you! All this because a book I was reading talked about a murder at a dairy farm! LOL!
Thank you for info.I just watched a documentary called Cow.I cried I did not why the calf was taken away. Thank you again.
Great article- thank you! I have 2 jerseys that raise orphan beef calves for the ranch. They definitely need to be aggressive nursers to keep up with cows in the pasture. I tease that they have to go find the cow to nurse because she isn’t going to find him. It all works out though. They’re just different than beef cows, for sure.
Thank you for educating the public with this great article!! We’re dairy farmers too and it’s so hard trying to teach the public about topics like these if they already have a preconceived notion on the subject that may be false. Thank you!! You nailed it. I don’t know of any dairy farmers that don’t give their calves the very best care possible. We all love our herd no matter the size!!
What happens to the mother after she gives birth? Does that cow get “retired” or do you wait for some time and then put her back to work?
What happens to the male calves?
I’m sure your a caring farmer but I disagree. It is nice that you shared the bond you have with your own child but it is sad that you deny the bond between a cow and her baby. Do you feel maximum colostrum is more important than letting the mother be with her young? Also, what percentage of milk is found to be colostrum deficient? I feel pasture finished beef is humane because mothers, babies, and the herd all live together in a natural setting unlike dairy. Just my thougths. Thanks, I look forward to your response.
I had a similar response. It reminded me of the medical profession that has needlessly increased c-sections for the convenience of busy doctors or having women lie prone for the doctor’s easier access rather than positions that better ease the process of childbirth. Similarly, are some of these practices for calves more about what’s easier for the human in the name of safety for the calf and cow?. Has a study been done on the long term health of a calf nursed by its mother (with unknown colostrum quality) versus the current method? I wonder if we forget to factor in all kinds of other benefits to the calf and the mother when our metrics are so limited by bottom line rationale. In humans the mothers colostrum and antibodies are unique to the child she carries and changes in composition to match the needs of the infant; substitute colostrum is not an equivocal stand in. Is the same true in cows? We think we know better than God’s intended methods but how many times do we make decisions that are more about our convenience or homogeneity than what is best overall? By the way–I do appreciate the concerns about those occasional mothers who harm or kill their calves–I totally believe the heartache that would result in that case–but is the best answer to remove every calf from its mother? Also, as regards calves being at risk from exposure to dung everywhere,
in nature calves would not be at risk because in pasture there is plenty of room. Maybe instead
of separation, a better solution is provide a larger space like a pasture until the calf is weaned. I believe your concerns for the calves are legitimate but the solutions have a greater regard for what makes it easier on us rather than what is best practices for the overall wellbeing of the calf and cows. .
Watching all the vet/farming shows on tv/internet I always wondered about the little igloos I saw on the farms. Thanks to your article I understand and appreciate what the farmers do. Love my farmers
This is great to read and brings about a sense of peace. Although, I do wonder what happens to the calves afterward? Do they stay on the farm their entire lives to live as dairy cows? What about the males? Are they sold for veal? Raised for beef? I do not consume dairy, however, those who do drink milk and/or eat cow meat (like my husband) deserve to know all of the ins and outs of the processes and there is just too much conflicting information. Many thanks!
This article is incredibly misleading. I have discussed it in detail with many of my friends and colleagues who raise cows and know them intimately well First, your statement that “dairy cows generally aren’t very maternal” is enormously disrespectful to cows. They are incredibly maternal and suffer greatly when their calves are taken from them immediately after birth just like almost all species would including humans. The article also an affront to nature. If the cows were kept in a relatively natural environment without overcrowding, their own colostrum and milk would be more than sufficient to confer protection to their newborns. And your statement that taking the calf away is needed to protect the mother is also absurd unless you disclose that the moms are impregnated soon after delivery to maximize her productivity and cannot both gestate a calf and nurse another. Your article also conveniently omits any discussion of how early in their lives dairy cows are sold off for slaughter and how dairy farms are a source of male calves for veal production. There could be a healthy opportunity for discussion and debate about the practices and ethics of dairy farming. Your article instead ignores the suffering and harm to cows and the environment from the dairy industry and appears intended to desensitize people to the suffering of baby calves been taken from their mothers and put in small isolated pens.
Your comment is showing just how absolutely ignorant you are. I mean, you’ve very obviously just swallowed the animal rights propaganda you’ve been shoveled, hook, line and sinker without even thinking it through.
I read your article with sincere interest and my response was based on my own beliefs, experience and discussions with farmers I know. I had hoped your article would be more balanced and nuanced but I found it to be very one sided. Please educate me about the specific points I raised that are so mistaken. I really am open to being educated where I may be wrong. Eddy
Let’s start with “the moms are impregnated soon after delivery to maximize her productivity and cannot both gestate a calf and nurse another”
On a dairy farm a cow is rebred after calving around 60-80 days post calving. In the “wild” a bull would have already rebred the cow when she started cycling a few weeks after calving. Cows are designed to have one calf a year. Just like other large ruminants i.e. elk, deer ect. Furthermore, if a cow that was pregnant couldn’t produce enough milk to nurse a calf, how exactly do you think the farmer would get milk from her? Think these things through.
I stand corrected ! But your article is just so one-sided that it is unnecessarily polarizing. The reason for so many of the practices you describe is so you can make money and produce more milk. This is not necessarily bad (!), but you falsely attribute all practices like taking new born calves away from their mothers and confining them alone in
pens to the love and wellbeing of cows, which is just not true or the whole story. It make sense for the business (you can get the mama back into milk production right away…) but it is absurd to think cows and their newborn calves would not greatly prefer, and be safe and healthy if allowed to remain together, even for a little while, just like you would with your child, if there was a more natural environment with less focus on maximizing profit and production. I continue to think that your assertion that dairy cow mothers have lost their maternal instincts is extraordinarily offensive to cows and wrong. It would be far more helpful for everyone to honestly describe the practices and challenges of dairy farming so that people can have a less polarizing more honest discussion about how to support the industry to be good for consumers and good for cows. Your tactic feels just like the propaganda you criticize in animal rights activists. The article and picture left me wondering whether you work with an industry group that is trying to normalize what everybody sees as incrediblyp sad and offensive: day old calves confined in small pens alone away from their mothers.
You can think that I am wrong. But as someone who literally works with these animals everyday, I have actual experience on my side. Just as dogs have been bred over thousands of years to have different traits and instincts, so have cows.