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Cow-calf separation: Just how much should we worry about it?

Progressive Dairyman Editor Jenna Hurty-Person Published on 23 February 2018

It’s no secret the first few weeks after calving are critical for both the calf and its dam. Experience and research demonstrate this time and time again. The problem: Absolutely none of this research has asked if the current industry practice of separating a calf from its dam right after birth contributes to or might even be the root cause of postpartum issues.

When it comes to cow-calf separation, the dairy industry may not be as prepared as they could be. Some members of the public are already asking questions about why this practice is done - wondering why we take the baby away from its mom, says Marina von Keyserlingk, a professor at the University of British Columbia.

“It is the very fact that we know very little about downstream consequences about this practice that places the dairy industry potentially at risk,” von Keyserlingk says. “We know given the questions that arise when the public becomes aware of this practice, that this is clearly a topic that the dairy industry will need to deal with in the future. The challenge, however, is that at present there is very little science to help guide practice or even to guide the discussion.”

Research on cow-calf separation

Research completed by von Keyserlingk and her colleagues in the UBC Animal Welfare program indicates that when the lay public learns about cow-calf separation, they do not like it.

“In the past those working in agriculture have fallen back on the hope that we can educate our way out of these sorts of issues or we simply say don’t worry about it. We’ve got this,”’ von Keyserlingk says. “But we need to take a hard look at what we know about this topic. In fact when you look at the actual science that we have, we have a handful of studies that have looked at the acute behavioral effects of separation but we also need to look at the bigger picture such as calf and cow morbidity or mortality rates.”

Specifically, this research consists of a few studies on vocalizations between cows and calves. According to von Keyserlingk, the studies showed it is quite clear that the sooner you separate the cow from her calf and break that bond, the fewer times she will cry out for her calf. However, it fails to answer other pressing questions.

“It provides no information on other topics such whether separation also impacts sickness,” von Keyserlingk says. “In fact, given that we have nearly 8 percent calf mortality and also numerous cows that get sick after calving, a critic could potentially argue that these high rates of sickness and death observed in calves – and arguably cows – arise because we take the cow away from her baby.”

The challenge with this is that the dairy industry does not have the research to answer the public’s probing question: Is separating the cow and calf quickly actually in both animals’ best interest? What other factors are at play when the cow and calf bond?

Recent studies show allowing the cow to lick its calf not only helps dry and stimulate the calf, it also releases oxytocin in the dam, which assists with milk letdown and expulsion of the placenta. For these reasons, Elizabeth Cox, a veterinarian with Merck Animal Health and president of the Dairy Cattle Welfare Council, encourages her clients to keep the cow and calf together for the first 20 minutes.

Given this benefit, she’s curious to see more research on the subject. While she currently doesn’t see commingling cows and calves at all feasible, she says the maternal bond is something that needs to be recognized and explored.

As a vet, she is concerned about the effects commingling could have on calf health, cow health and employee safety. However, she also recognizes dairying now is not the same as it was 50, 20 or even 10 years ago. She believes animal husbandry today should go beyond just providing adequate food, water and housing, and should now explore other facets of animal care.

“We need to be open to those discussions about the mental state of the animal as well and to be considering that when you are working with your animals, designing facilities, training your employees, things like that,” Cox says.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is the ethical component of this animal welfare discussion. Even if science shows separation is a viable option, ethical concerns ask: Should we do it? Is this right?

One study conducted by the UBC team a few years ago looked at cow/calf bonding. In this study, researchers allowed a group of cows contact with their calves but in half of the cows the calves were allowed to suckle and in the other half they were not allowed to suckle (the cows had a bra on and the calves got their milk ration from a milk feeder).

Surprisingly, or maybe not, von Keyserlingk says they discovered that the act of nursing is not necessary for the cow and calf to bond. Cows that didn’t nurse their calves bonded just as strongly as those that did. This shows these animals clearly crave social interaction, but von Keyserlingk says no one has done any additional studies, leaving more questions than answers.

Additionally, von Keyserlingk notes that for this research to be most effective, the dairy industry needs to engage in dialogue with the public to identify their key concerns about this practice. This can help guide the research and hopefully help the industry find solutions that satisfy all stakeholders, including producers, their animals and the public.

Proposed solutions

In Europe, some producers have installed “cuddle boxes” in their maternity area. These small pens sit on the perimeter of the maternity pen and allow the cow to nose-touch with her calf while they are in the maternity area without compromising employee safety or inhibiting the employees’ ability to access and care for the calf. In the Netherlands, several other producers have actually started housing cows and calves together in an attempt to appease the public’s demands.

However, von Keyserlingk says these farms are struggling to make it work, as they lack the research and guidance to make evidence-based decisions that can guide them towards best practices. von Keyserlingk also says while the cuddle boxes sound like a nice idea, they fail to clearly address the question of cow-calf separation, given that immediate separation still takes place.

Emily Yeiser Stepp, director of the FARM Animal Care Program, echoes this sentiment, saying she’s seen little interest in cuddle boxes in the U.S. and doesn’t think they are a practical solution at this point.

Until more research on cow-calf separation becomes available, von Keyserlingk suggests examining the research available to make sure current industry practices and research are in sync. In particular, she suggests looking at the current practice of individual calf housing.

Research, she says, shows calves housed individually have learning impairments, gain less weight and are more scared of new types of feed. This can make adapting to new situations, new cow groups or learning new tasks more stressful for them.

Pair-housed or group-housed calves, on the other hand, learn new tasks and acclimate to new situations much more quickly and with far less stress. In addition, she says the public seems to view group housing in a much more positive light than individual housing.

Cox agrees calf housing is an impending issue in the dairy industry, and it needs to be addressed soon. However, she isn’t ready to recommend pair- or group-housing just yet. She recognizes the benefits and has seen some farms be extremely successful with group housing, but she’s also seen it turn into a calf health disaster. For her, elevated hutches, especially elevated wooden hutches, are a much more pressing public perception problem that needs to be addressed.

She strongly advises producers who use these hutches to switch to plastic hutches on the ground with outdoor access, which she says create a better environment for the calf, making their use more defensible to the public. She says, “I believe we can make individual calf housing work when it is managed well.”

How could this play out?

Going forward, von Keyserlingk and Yeiser Stepp expect to continue to see questions regarding cow-calf separation. While a viable solution may not be available in the next several years, Yeiser Stepp says the industry does need to explore it so when the public asks questions, the dairy industry has the knowledge to explain how and why the current system is in the animal’s best interest.

“I think the sane, sensible retail customers we work with want to give their consumers a good, wholesome product will have an understanding and appreciation for the research that’s been conducted,” Yeiser Stepp says. “They’ll allow us the flexibility to continue to farm in a way we would like to with a little bit of compromise or movement to address some of their concerns – but not going 180 degrees the other way.”

More immediately, Yeiser Stepp sees an increasing trend toward group calf housing. FARM version 4.0 will include additional information on group housing and spell out scientific guidelines producers can follow. In terms of the use of cow-calf separation as a general practice, she says there are no plans to revise its use anytime soon. Any recommendation to do so would need to be backed by science, she says.

Just what the cow-calf separation research will show is predominantly speculation at this point, and any number of scenarios are plausible. Science may surprise the industry and show cow-calf separation has little impact on postpartum depression. Or it could prove the opposite and may be the root cause.

Research may prove calves mothered by humans and raised in pair or group housing are healthier than calves raised by their dam. Researchers may discover allowing cows the opportunity to nose-touch with their calves for the first three weeks of life decreases transition cow disease by 50 percent. No one knows, but experts agree we should find out.  end mark

Jenna Hurty-Person
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