Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Is cow-calf separation a socially sustainable practice?

Beth Ventura Published on 06 May 2014

A cow and her newborn calf

Cow-calf separation is embedded into the rhythm of life on most dairy farms, so much so that many people in the industry may not have thought much about why it’s done, or more pointedly, questioned whether it should be done.



But with rising concern over the animal management practices in the dairy industry, we suggest that the dairy industry would benefit by engaging with consumers about this and other contentious practices.

And cow-calf separation is a contentious practice. Recent results from our online attitudes study demonstrates that people from diverse stakeholder groups have varying opinions on the acceptability of separating the dairy calf from the dam shortly after birth.

About the study methods
CowViews is an online forum where anyone can go to share their views on a range of common dairy management practices. The website is navigable: Participants read through brief backgrounds on the topic at hand and then indicate whether they support, oppose or are neutral to the practice in question.

In this case, the question was: “Should dairy calves be separated from the cow within the first few hours after birth?” Participants could then share the reasons for their stance as well as vote on reasons given by previous participants, allowing us a better understanding of people’s views in a semi-social context.

Most (56 percent) of our participants had connections to the dairy industry (i.e., farmers, veterinarians, students and teachers), though lay participants (31 percent) as well as animal advocates (13 percent) also shared their views.


The following results are not intended to represent larger populations; rather, we tried to incorporate diverse groups of people in order to capture the range of views people might hold around this topic.

Overall, there does not seem to be much consensus on the acceptability of early cow-calf separation, with 44 percent in favor of and 48 percent opposed (9 percent were “neutral”).

Opposition to the practice of removing the calf at birth was higher among females, animal advocates and those with no involvement with the dairy industry, but it is important to note that opposition was also seen among those working in the dairy industry, including farmers.

Our next step was to look at the reasons people cited to support their stance. Opponents of early separation suggested it is emotionally stressful for the calf and cow, it compromises calf and cow health, it is unnatural, and the industry can and should accommodate cow-calf pairs.

In contrast, supporters of separation reasoned that emotional distress is minimized by separating earlier, that early separation promotes cow and calf health and that the industry is limited in its ability to keep cows and calves together.

On some contentious issues the science comes down firmly on one side or the other, supporting a clear policy for the dairy industry; for example, our past work on tail docking showed that even though some people believed that tail docking made for cleaner cows, the scientific literature shows no positive association between docking and cleaner cows.


In the case of cow-calf separation, the science is less clear and the issue is complicated by how calves are managed and housed post-separation. Further scientific research is needed to help to better understand the welfare harms and benefits associated with different practices, but more scientific work alone may not be sufficient.

Disagreements are often rooted in value differences between individuals. For example, emotional distress may be a priority to some, while physical health may be paramount to others. Policy that addresses just one set of concerns while ignoring others is unlikely to be sustainable.

A great thing about this study was that it allowed us to identify areas of agreement among stakeholders. What we noticed was that, although opponents and supporters clearly reached opposing conclusions, they often referenced the same issues in their reasoning. That is, people on both sides of the issue were concerned about things like calf health and emotional distress for the animals.

We see this as a potential opportunity for compromise, as explained by one of our participants: “My bigger issue is that calves not be housed individually after separation, and that proper management skills be in place to make sure calf health and nutrition is not compromised.”

This quote highlights a more practical solution than a total overhaul of the current system; providing social or pair housing for calves helps address one concern about early cow-calf separation.

More broadly, we suggest that the dairy industry can only benefit from more engagement exercises like the ones we’ve pursued in this study. If we ignore public concerns, we risk having others outside the industry impose their solutions without the industry’s input.

But if we proactively engage with these societal concerns, we can cooperatively develop solutions that work for the dairy industry, its customers and the animals in its care. PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

My bigger issue is that calves not be housed individually after separation, and that proper management skills be in place to make sure that calf health and nutrition is not compromised. Photo courtesy of University of British Columbia Animal Welfare Program.

Beth Ventura

Beth Ventura
Ph.D. Student
Animal Welfare Program - University of British Columbia