The suffering of the calves

The «job» of a dairy cow is to produce a lot of milk. But she only gives milk when she gives birth to a calf. The cow is first artificially inseminated at the age of 16-18 months and is then pregnant for nine months. Shortly after giving birth to her first calf, the cow gives milk that is sold for (human) consumption. In order to produce as much milk as possible, cow and calf are separated within the first hours or days after birth. Immediately after birth, the calf receives so-called colostrum (colostrum), this is the milk that the cow gives immediately after birth and that contains important immunoglobulins for the calf. This is usually the only time these calves receive breast milk, from then on they are usually fed purchased milk substitute – a mixture of skimmed milk powder and water. The calves are kept in individual boxes for the first few weeks of life immediately after they are separated from their mother.

Separation from the mother often makes the calf more susceptible to disease. As a rule, calves drink from their mother’s udder 6-8 times a day. Due to the separation from the mother cow, the calf has to drink the substitute milk from a bucket, which only happens twice a day. The calves therefore drink rapidly and consume large amounts at once. This and the stressful events that reduce their immune response lead to life-threatening diarrhea in many calves, resulting in an average calf mortality rate on dairy farms of 10% and more. 1

If cow and calf are separated immediately after birth, a mother-child bond is prevented. Despite this, the suckler cows are often desperately looking for their calf that they have just given birth to. If cow and calf are allowed to stay together for a certain period of time, but the calf is nevertheless “weaned” from the mother too early, ie weaned, this can lead to serious animal welfare reactions and make the calves really sick. Due to the general lack of mother-child contact and the insufficient satisfaction of the calves’ strong need to suckle, behavioral disorders such as cross-suckling and navel sucking often occur. Due to the calf’s inherent need to suckle, the calf then begins to suckle other structures in the stable and, for example, the navel of another calf. This is extremely painful for the suckled calf, as it can lead to inflammation. The animals that are unable to suckle may show signs of extreme mental distress that can lead to physical impairments such as severe weight loss (emaciation).