News - February 16, 2016

Cow and calf together is worse for animal welfare

Albert Sikkema

The Parliament wants calf’s to remain with the cow for a longer period after birth. This does not benefit animal welfare, says welfare researcher and lecturer Hans Hopster, on the contrary.

Hopster: ‘It sounds like a sympathetic idea. Currently two of the three farms immediately remove the calf from the cow after birth. There are good reasons for this, but could it be otherwise? A few dozen, especially organic dairy farmers are experimenting with keeping the calf’s together with the cow for a longer period of time, sometimes in family herds.’

Wat is better from a welfare point of view, measured on the animal?

‘A lot of research was performed on this topic in the past thirty years. In preparation for birth the maternal behaviour of the cow is fully controlled by hormones. But when the calf is born, the hormonal control is replaced by the stimuli of the calf. Evolutionary this is advantageous: if the calf is a stillborn, the cow must not waste energy on it. After birth the calf takes initiative. If the calf wants to drink, the mother comes into action. If the calf is immediately removed, the maternal behaviour of the cow quickly extinguishes, especially in cows that have no previous experience in raising a calf.’

It feels unnatural.

‘Exactly, people have the idea that it works otherwise. We have grown up with the attachment theory of John Bowlby, that a good attachment in young kids can avoid all sorts of psychological problems later on. But between mammals there are large differences in how dependent the young are of maternal care. It seems that the cow in this respect is more like a wildebeest, where the calf is born extremely self-sufficient. Under natural conditions the cow hides her calf the first three days in the bushes. She is not always around, but keeps an eye from a distance and gives the calf milk a couple of times a day. Afterwards the calf grows up with peers in the herd. As the cow and the calf stay together longer the bond becomes stronger. Thus if we carry out the ideas of the Parliament, it could be that welfare problems arise if we separate the cows after – for example – two months.’

Is the cow not needed for the health of the young calf?

‘Farmers separate the cow and calf for health reasons.  The new-born calf  quickly needs to receive enough colostrum from the cow to build immunity. If you leave it up to the calf and cow, it sometimes goes wrong. By taking over the control from the cow, the farmer can guarantee this. Furthermore, as a farmer you do not want your calf to catch pathogens in the cubical stable. Also for that reason the farmer prefers to place the calf in a separate clean, dry, warm stable for a while. From a health perspective it is a real risk to keep the calf and cow together, while there is still insufficient proof for the benefits.’

So keep separating them?

‘Carrying out the idea of the parliament is unwise, from the animals perspective. But you also have  the ‘intrinsic value’ of the animal of which everyone has their own opinion. You could argue that separating them is ‘unnatural’ and therefore bad.’