The dairy industry in particular is infamous for removing calves from their mothers soon after birth. Beef cow-calf operations do something similar, except that calves are much older.
So why is it done?
I briefly look at both, and bust some myths about weaning in the process.
Weaning Beef Calves
Weaning beef calves is not as contentious a topic as extremely early weaning in dairy heifers, but it still raises questions about stress and the "emotional well-being" of both cows and calves when separation is sudden and abrupt.
Traditional weaning entails separating calves from cows and putting the calves on a cattle liner, then shipping them off to a place where they neither see nor hear each other. The process is quite stressful, as pairs are moved from pasture to corrals and purposefully herded so that cows go in one pen, calves go in another, and calves are moved off the farm to a completely different location.
This leaves the cows wondering where their "babies" went, and the calves wondering where the heck they are and where their mommas left them. Both would be bawling for a good several days, pacing around, not eating or drinking much, and not resting much either. They do settle down eventually, but it does take a toll on them; calves especially are more prone to stress-related illnesses like respiratory disease.
More modern, low-stress weaning practices involve using nose flaps–those "nasty" things animal extremists were trying to vilify as being yet another "cruel tool" of the cattle industry– or fence-line weaning. Fence-line weaning is basically having a fence in between calves and cows so that they can see, hear, and smell each other, but cannot suckle.
Beef calves are typically weaned when they are 6 to 8 months old (Australian calves are generally weaned later). At this age they are big and mature enough to be on full feed or pasture without requiring more sustenance from their mother's milk. Some farmers like to wean their calves at 10 months old. The reason for this is because at this age their mother would be 2 months away from calving and needing to rest and recover enough to produce colostrum for the next calf.
Calves at this age are not babies by any stretch. They are young cattle, but they are not so young that they are needing their mothers milk for their own existence.
So why wean? Several reasons apply:
If you wish to compare cattle to animals in the wild, young animals are also weaned off their mothers for reasons relating to food supply, new young on the way, and because they are old enough to not be reliant on their mother anymore. Some young stick with their mothers, aunts, grandmas, etc. if they are a herd or flock, but others as commonly do not, and have to set out on their own.
Dairy Calves–No Udder, Just Bottle
As I said above, the dairy industry is certainly notorious for taking very young calves away from their moms within hours after birth. I for one do not agree with the practice of taking very young, baby calves away from their mothers, but on the same token I do not condone the vilification spread around by animal extremists or vegan sites for the purpose of conning people into believing things that may not be fully the truth.
But I digress. The reasons that baby dairy calves are taken away from their dams at such a young age are actually more than just so that cow can go into milk production:
But the other thing to understand is that a lot of dairy cows aren't selected to be good mothers with a strong maternal instinct to protect their calves like with beef cows. A dairy farmer doesn't need to have cows that are protective of their young and be able to establish a bond quickly within the first few hours after birth because that cow and that calf won't be seeing nor needing one another after the next 24 to 36 hours after birth.
Also, there's a lot of cows on the milk line that don't really know what to do if they have a little calf chasing after them trying to get at their udder. Many of them have gotten so used to having their young taken away from them that they don't raise a fuss over it much, not like when they were first-calf heifers or young cows.
Calves aren't denied milk at such a young age; they are fed milk replacers that meet their nutritional needs. There's some argument that milk replacers either aren't enough for the calf, or that they don't provide the same kind of nutritional benefit like they would suckling from their dam.
Smaller-scale farms that can afford to keep cows and calves together and be able to still get milk from those cows are probably better off. Makes one wonder if the future is going to be like the latter rather than what the current situation for dairy cows is.
Range Nerd, Forage & Grazing Fanatic and a Bovine Enthusiast. A love for farming, and for the soil.
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