Alternative dairy farming

Mother-bound calf rearing

The alternative: «mother-bound calf rearing»
According to a study by the University of Göttingen (1), most consumers reject the early separation of mother and calf. Some organic farms are becoming more and more aware that an early separation of cow and calf does not have to be necessary and show that there is another way: «mother-bound calf rearing» means that cow and calf are allowed to stay together.

In the case of mother-bound calf rearing, the amount of milk delivered before the calf is weaned is inevitably lower, but the animals get sick less often. Typical housing and feeding-related illnesses such as udder infections in cows or life-threatening diarrheal diseases in calves hardly ever occur in mother-bound calf rearing. This has a positive effect on profitability and compensates to a certain extent for the losses caused by the lower volume of milk sold.

It is not a problem not to sell some of the milk for supply reasons, since the degree of self-sufficiency in Germany is well over 100 percent and more milk is produced than we need. Milk is currently sold at bargain prices, far below its production value. More space, access to pasture and more effort in managing the animals through mother-bonded calf rearing lead to a higher end consumer price for a liter of milk. With this additional price, however, one pays directly for more animal welfare and supports the farmers who put very substantial animal welfare improvements into practice.

Mother-bound rearing: happy cow with calf in the herd.

nursing cow husbandry

Another form of attitude is nursing cow husbandry, in which several calves are raised by so-called nurse cows. Foster cows are not the biological mothers of the calves. They are not milked, but usually suckle two to four calves at the same time. The birth mothers of the calves, on the other hand, are milked and usually have no direct contact with their calves. In this system, the calves at least have the opportunity to suckle from an udder. This corresponds to their natural food intake behavior and prevents health problems that are commonplace in conventional rearing.

However, the fact remains that the calf is being separated from its mother. The associated disadvantages of this separation are not solved in the case of foster cow husbandry for both cow and calf. However, one advantage of foster cow husbandry is that the calves are usually allowed to suckle for a longer period of time (e.g. up to the age of six months) than in mother-bonded calf rearing

The weaning

The natural age at which a calf weans from its mother and feeds exclusively on grass is around nine to ten months. In mother-bound calf rearing, however, the calves are usually weaned earlier, otherwise the milk losses are too high.

As early as the second week of life, calves begin to eat grass or hay in addition to drinking milk. By the time they are three months old, they can usually feed themselves on roughage and quench their thirst with water. As long as the weaning is done in a way that doesn’t cause undue emotional distress to the calf and mother, it is acceptable at this point.

You can start the separation of calf and mother abruptly or gradually. From an animal welfare point of view, a step-by-step procedure is preferred, so that the separation of mother and calf is first tested for a few hours and then gradually increased. In nurse cow husbandry, the weaning of the calves is usually also brought about by humans and can also be abrupt or gradual here.

Not only the calf is caressed by its mother – the mother also gets affection from her calf.


Positive example from practice

There are isolated farms where dairy cows are kept together with their calves. The mother cow suckles her calf and is also milked. This is called mother-bound calf rearing. Currently, not many farmers practice this practice, but more and more are doing so. Dairy farmers, especially organic dairy farmers, are increasingly confronted with the problem of mother-calf separation and the resulting suffering of the calves. Solutions are being sought to avoid separation immediately after birth and still be able to sell milk. There is no universal system of mother-bonded calf rearing: some farmers leave the calves with their mothers continuously for a few months, others only for a few weeks. In some systems, calves are separated from their mothers at night but are allowed to roam with them during the day.

, together with the Research Institute for Organic Farming (FIBL), has drawn up a current new edition of a leaflet on mother- and foster-bonded calf rearing. Various practical examples are presented and described here. The print and online version is available at this link.