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Cow-calf separation: A look at the research and public opinion behind this practice

Progressive Dairy Editor Jenna Hurty-Person Published on 06 August 2021
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When it comes to cow-calf separation, there is no easy answer. Society has its concerns, but most of today’s dairy farms are designed with this practice in mind.

And the research on it is limited, giving producers little to no guidance on the best protocols for housing cows and calves together. In her presentation at the Dairy Cattle Welfare Council’s 2021 symposium May 25-27, Dr. Marina (Nina) von Keyserlingk, University of British Columbia, discussed this challenge.

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While some may think the cow-calf separation discussion strictly applies to the practice of separating cows from their calves soon after birth, von Keyserlingk said that surplus calves are also wrapped up in this discussion. This particular issue, she said, is becoming a greater concern globally as the public views the euthanasia of young calves in a negative light, especially when said animal is healthy.

Does the research support cow-calf separation?

Historically, dairies have separated cows and calves shortly after birth for a number of reasons, including to maximize milk production and in turn profit, to better control colostrum feeding and improve calf health and to minimize distress by separating them before the dam and calf bond. While these reasons might seem justified, von Keyserlingk said the research, what little we have on the topic, does not provide a strong body of evidence supporting immediate separation.

A few years ago, von Keyserlingk and other UBC researchers and students set out to see what exactly the research said by conducting two literature reviews. One review focused on cow health and calf health and the other on behavior, welfare and production. In the systematic review on health, they found 63 papers that compared separation to cow-calf contact with the majority looking at calf health and 18 considering cow health. In the case of mastitis, 11 studies reported a protective effect (lower) of cow-calf contact on mastitis and seven were neutral but no studies showed that keeping cows and calves together increases the risk of mastitis. These results may be explained by the fact that the calf is suckling six to eight times a day from its dam and continually emptying the udder, decreasing the dam’s chances of contracting mastitis. However, additional research is needed on this topic as nothing is known about the impact this has on other diseases.

Calf health, on the other hand, was a little more mixed. However, when you put all of the work together there is an absence of evidence supporting separation for reasons of calf health. For example, looking at scours, six of the studies noted a positive impact (calves in the cow-calf contact group had less scours), five were neutral, and only one was negative. Johne’s disease had a similar conclusion, and no studies indicated a benefit of separating cows and calves. For other issues like mortality, keeping cows and calves together was highly beneficial, von Keyserlingk said. This, she said, is a key issue because so often, dairymen and women argue for cow-calf separation based on calf health, but according to the NAHMS data, calf mortality rates from 48 hours old through weaning are 6% to 7%. Add in the calves that die within the first 48 hours which count as stillbirths, and the mortality rate is between 13% and 15%. So, she cautions the industry in using arguments in support of cow-calf separation that imply that they are justified in strong science. The evidence is simply not there.

“This is an interesting body of literature because this is where I think science has also failed us,” von Keyserlingk said. “Early on, there was one paper looking at the effects of cow-calf contact on Johne’s transmission where in their summary and conclusions they stated that based on their work cows and calves should be separated. However, when you look at their data, they did not have the evidence to clearly state that transmission was a consequence of keeping cows and calves together. Unfortunately, this paper can be followed through the next 15 years as other publications cite this original paper, despite the lack of evidence.” She suggests that more research is needed to definitely determine whether keeping cows and calves together increases Johne’s transmission, which means that practices where evidence already exists (such as keeping the maternity pen clean) should be prioritized.

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With that being said, the research on Johne’s does say that cleanliness matters when it comes to animal health. The other systematic review also provides evidence that calves that stay with their dam have improved weight gain, have better social behavior and reduced abnormal behaviors.

She also acknowledged that keeping cows and calves together will create other challenges that must be addressed. There is no doubt that weaning may present additional challenges and research is needed on how to best wean calves in cow-calf contact systems. The calf and cow will have bonded and the calf will likely be used to drinking a higher volume of milk. Obviously removing the calf abruptly will not be a good idea. Efforts will need to focus on how to gradually wean these calves. When reviewing the evidence on keeping dairy calves with their dams and it’s impact on milk production, the evidence, the little that there is, leans towards a positive effect during the nursing phase and mixed beyond the nursing phase. Again, more research is needed to really be able to say one way or the other. This presents the industry with a bit of dilemma.

“On the one side, we have science that doesn’t really come out 100 percent in support of what we do,” von Keyserlingk said. “On the other side of that, we have the milk processors and those whose job it is to sell milk to the consumer, to the public, who are very good at what they do. The best way to sell something is to make sure that your messaging aligns with the core values of your client.”

What does the public think of cow-calf separation?

Von Keyserlingk and the team at UBC have been working on finding solutions that works for both the public and dairy producers. Part of this process is to figure out which solutions will not resonate with the public. In a study they did on a representative sample of 1,500 U.S. residents, they divided them into four groups. All groups were initially told that cows must have a calf to produce milk and that the cow was housed with other cows and milked by the farmer but the information on what happened to the calf differed in each of the four treatment groups. In the first scenario, the calf was separated from the cow within a few hours of birth and housed individually. In scenario two, the calf was again separated, but this time it was housed with other calves. In the third scenario, the calf was still separated, but it was housed with a foster cow and other calves. Finally, in the fourth scenario, the calf and cow were housed together, the calf was allowed to nurse its dam, and the two were not separated until weaning.

They asked the participants a series of questions related to the cow and calf’s welfare. Not surprisingly, the full-contact system where the cow and calf stayed together was the most favorable. However, the other three systems were viewed by them as equivalent due to the fact that the calf was still separated from its mother. People were concerned about the cow-calf relationship and the standard of care. Participants were fine with the producer collecting some of the milk they work for, as long as the cow-calf bond was preserved and the calf was able to nurse.

In another study of this type, von Keyserlingk and colleagues are investigating the public’s opinion on cow-calf separation and the age of the calf at slaughter. Again, participants preferred keeping the cow and calf together, but were concerned about early life slaughter. In the survey, the cutoffs presented were slaughtered at 2 weeks and 12 months, with and without early separation. Not surprisingly, participants did not approve of calves being slaughtered at less than 2 weeks old. They were much more favorable to slaughtering calves at over 12 months of age. Indeed, only 16% of participants said that the dairy calves should never enter the meat supply chain – this is very positive as it means that the majority of the public view the dairy calf as a viable source of meat.

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That said, this study also indicates that failure by the dairy industry to provide assurances that the surplus dairy calf has a reasonable length of life and that this life has purpose (i.e., contributes to the beef supply) will place the dairy industry at odds with public values.

Where does the industry go from here?

While there is little to no work on cow-calf contact happening in the U.S. right now, the issue isn’t going away. In fact, Australia and many countries in Europe are investing research dollars into this very topic. In Europe there are a growing number of farms already housing cows and calves together due to pressure from the public. Unfortunately, von Keyserlingk said, these farmers are having to figure out how to do this without any help from science which means that there is increased risk they will make costly mistakes.

“External stakeholders, including the public, place great value on cow-calf contact,” von Keyserlingk said. “We must recognize this. The public does not expect a complete transformation overnight, but it does expect the industry to try to get better every day. Part of that striving to get better is acknowledging the fact that we aren’t perfect. The early separation issue will not be limited to female calves. It will also come up when discussing surplus calves. I actually think this train is coming, and it’s going to come faster than many of us are actually prepared for. Research is needed to develop workable management options for different production systems. This is where, as scientists, we can help you – but we need to have time in order to develop these solutions.”

With that being said, von Keyserlingk said dairies need to keep striving to raise the healthiest animals possible through feeding all calves colostrum, feeding adequate nutrition and increasing the adoption of socially housed calves. They also need to show that they are focused on improvement based on the current research and they are open to changing in the future as more information become available.  end mark

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Jenna Hurty-Person
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