Why Some Dairy Cows Make Bad Mothers

Even on idyllic pasture-based dairy farms, newborn calves may face a harsh fate if left to their clueless mothers.

Dairy cows need to give birth to a calf every year in order for them to keep producing milk. What happens to all those calves?  A few of the females live on to replenish the herd, but the male calves are usually sold on only days after birth—destined for the abysmal, short life of a veal calf.

A few dairy farmers eschew this practice.  Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures, refuses to have anything to do with veal.  Instead, he castrates the males, eventually releasing them into the herd, living on pasture until maturity—when they are slaughtered and sold as 100% grass fed beef.

Whatever the gender of the newborn calf, at Organic Pastures they stay with the mother for 2 days on pasture, where they drink colostrum for the first time.  Even though calves continue to be fed raw milk for the next 3 months, they are removed from their mothers and live in social corals.

We’ve tried to do things even more naturally but found that there have been some innate changes in cow behaviors and protective instincts that cause the calves to be subjected to being eaten by coyotes.

Mark McAfee, Organic Pastures

Mark arrived at this two day policy through a series of experiments which yielded surprising results.

“We did an experiment about seven years ago which was a flopt. We actually left the calves with the cows for a longer period of time.  What happen was about 30% of the time the moms did a really good job of rearing their calves and would attend to them and nurse them. 70% of the time the calves were abandoned—walked on, eaten by coyotes. It was like dairy husbandry practices for the last several hundred years had bred the instinct out of the cows.”

It’s different in the beef industry where the cows are left out, up in the mountains and have to fend for themselves. That preserved the instinct in mothers to protect their calves. Dairy cows, however, are much more protected.

In order to save his calves from dangerous neglect, Mark takes them away from their mothers and places them in a protected area where they are fed, cared for and protected from coyotes.

“We only loose about five calves a year out of 500-600 calves that are born every year which is about 1%. We are very proud of our calf raising operation,” said Mark.

Have your read our Sustainable Kitchen Guide for buying humane, healthy and ethical milk, cheese and dairy? Find it here.


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