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Study: Consumers will pay premiums for more calf-dam contact

Albert Boaitey for Progressive Dairy Published on 19 October 2021

Changes in consumer preferences, the availability of substitute products and the increased role of environmental and farm animal welfare concerns in milk choice pose significant challenges to the U.S. dairy industry.

Per-capita fluid milk consumption in the U.S. has been on the decline for many years – and with more and more consumers increasingly disconnected from the farm, the concern is that failure to address emerging societal concerns would further impact consumption.

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An important yet controversial farm animal welfare issue relates to current calf management practices, particularly the early separation of calves from their dams. The practice of separating the calf from the cow has become commonplace in the U.S. since the 1950s. A few reasons for this practice are to ensure good-quality colostrum intake for the calf, sustained and easy collection of milk from the cow and reducing the mother-infant bond when separated early.

Available evidence, however, indicates farmers and consumers are sharply divided on the issue. There have been a few surveys conducted where farmers in Brazil, veterinarians in Canada and consumers in North America have been asked whether calves should be separated from their mother. Farmers and veterinarians, in favor of separating calf from mother, were on the opposite side of public response, which was in favor of keeping calf with mother.

The primary rationale for both groups is animal welfare. Producers and veterinarians feel it is better to separate calf from mother early on to reduce the stress of later separation. The public feels it is better to keep calf with mother due to emotional attachment and belief that housing systems can be changed to make this happen. This misalignment in views between farmers and the public is a complex problem with no easy fixes.

There may, however, be creative ways for farmers to meet some of the public concerns relating to calf-dam separation. For example, a calf could be kept with its own mother while the mother wears a device to prevent milk suckling. This would allow the farmer to monitor the quality and quantity of milk the calf receives, as well as harvest all of the mother’s milk. Alternatively, the calf could be taken from its own mother and kept with a late-lactation mother with excellent mothering ability in a group situation with other newborn calves.

This would allow the calf to stay bonded with a cow as well as develop social behaviors with fellow newborns. These and other alternatives can have significant impacts on farm profitability. There is, therefore, the need to properly understand public preferences and the values attached to these alternatives, if any, in their milk purchase decision. Myself and other researchers at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls recently set out to examine these issues.

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How the study was conducted

The researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,020 consumers in the spring of 2021. Information on dairy consumption patterns, dairy cattle welfare perceptions and sociodemographic characteristics were collected. Each respondent also took part in an experiment designed to elicit their preferences for calf-dam practices in their milk purchase decision if milk was sold with information on calf practices.

Respondents were provided information on the key arguments for and against early calf separation prior to the experiment to curtail any biases due to limited information. They were subsequently asked to assume they were buying milk at the store and were faced with the choice of three milk products identical in all other attributes but price, calf dehorning practices and calf-dam contact practices. Each respondent was given six different scenarios. In each scenario, they were asked to select their best and worst milk choice. Pertaining to calf-dam contact, four alternatives were provided in the study:

1. Early calf-dam separation (Calf is separated from dam within a few hours of birth)

2. Free dam-calf contact (Dam and her calf are kept together 24 hours a day until weaning)

3. Restricted suckling contact (Calf is allowed to suckle its own dam during one to two short periods daily)

4. Half-day calf-cow contact (Cow and calf are kept together for around 12 hours a day)

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5. Foster cow system (two to four calves are kept together and suckle one cow)

Based on respondents’ best and worst milk choices, researchers were able to estimate the premiums consumers were willing to pay for each of the alternative practices.

Consumers care about farm animal welfare but know little about calf-dam contact

Consumers were asked about the importance of farm animal welfare in their meat and milk purchase decisions. Most respondents attached higher-than-average-level importance to farm animal welfare issues in the purchase decisions. The majority of respondents (38%) reported that farm animal welfare was most important to them, as compared to 7% who considered animal welfare as being not at all important (Figure 1).

In general, how important is farm animal welfare

When asked about their awareness of the practice of early calf-dam separation prior to taking the survey, a large proportion of respondents (60%) reported being unaware or vaguely aware of the practice. This lack of awareness is not surprising in view of the fact consumer knowledge about many farm practices is generally low. Indeed, studies in Brazil and Canada reported similar low levels of awareness of early calf separation amongst the public.

Consumers are willing to pay premiums, but they are not all the same

The findings of the study (Figure 2) indicated that, on average, the highest premium ($3.90 more per gallon) were associated with free dam-calf contact systems.

Premiiums consumers are willing to pay for alternative calf-dam contact systems

This was followed by half-day calf ($2.85 more per gallon) and foster cow ($1.81 more per gallon) systems. The lowest premiums ($1.38 more per gallon) are associated with restricted suckling contact systems. Female consumers had stronger preferences for additional calf-dam contact as compared to male consumers. This is not unexpected, as women generally tend to care more about animal welfare issues in agriculture.

The analysis also uncovered three segments of consumers based on sensitivity to the cost of milk (price) and preferences for calf-dam practices: a majority (70%) who care about milk price and calf-dam practices, an intermediate segment (18%) who only care about calf-dam practices and are insensitive to the cost of milk and the minority (12%) who are unconcerned about calf-dam practices and are only concerned on milk price. This indicates preferences for additional calf contact practices are not uniform and are conditioned by the cost of milk for most respondents in the sample.

Takeaways

The results of the study indicate there are opportunities to obtain additional value for on-farm calf-dam practices, as consumers are willing to pay premiums for additional contact. The decision to explore any available market opportunities in this regard depends on the cost of farm adjustments to provide additional calf contact relative to the magnitude of the premium consumers are willing to pay. Additional research is needed to understand the impact of the different contact practices on the objective well-being of cows and the incremental effect of different practices on calf welfare. Stakeholders need to find solutions that balance ethical and economic considerations. This would ensure that societal expectations are met in a manner which enhances farm profitability.

Next steps

Researchers will be conducting a study of dairy farmers to identify possible points of convergence between farmer and consumer preferences for cow-dam contact. end mark

Albert Boaitey is an assistant professor of Agricultural Economics at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls

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