Can the dairy business be any worse for cows than we thought? A new study says yes, actually. When a calf is immediately and permanently taken from its mother, that separation does more psychological harm than we knew.
Calves raised in isolation from other cows grow up reacting differently to certain situations than calves that have contact with a herd, according to research done by the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria.
Dairy farms often separate mothers from calves within 24 hours of birth. The point of doing so is to save the milk the mother generates so it can be sold for human consumption rather than drunk by the newborn calf. After being taken away, most of the male calves, sadly, are bundled off to become veal. Yes, the dairy industry and the veal industry are inextricably linked. So if you consume dairy, you’re supporting veal.
Female calves, future dairy cows themselves, face a different life. Often, they are removed from their mothers to be raised in relative isolation from other cows. Luckier calves, at farms with better animal husbandry practices, grow up interacting with their mothers and other cows.
The study, published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, found a distinct difference in behavior depending on how calves were reared.
“Research has shown that the early social environment affects behavior, stress reactivity and the ability to cope with different challenges in various animal species,” lead researcher Susanne Waiblinger of the Institute of Animal Husbandry and Animal Welfare said in a press release.
Specifically, dairy cows dealt with stress in a markedly different way, based on how they grew up.
“Cattle are herd animals,” Waiblinger noted. “As expected, all animals, whether they were reared with or without mothers, produced higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol when being isolated from the herd.”
How the Lives of 26 Calves Revealed the Truth
Waiblinger’s team focused on 26 calves and how they were raised during their first 12 weeks of life. Eleven grew up never knowing their mothers and were fed via an automatic feeder. Eventually they entered a calf group. The other 15 calves remained with their mothers for the first five days after birth, cementing a maternal bond the others never knew.
These 15 also joined a calf group, but were able to continue contact with their mothers. Among these 15, nine got to see and feed from their mothers two times a day. The other six could interact freely with their mothers and the larger herd any time they wanted to.
At about four and a half months of age, the research team isolated these calves to observe their behavior. Isolation, in and of itself, can be stressful for herd animals like cows, which are naturally more comfortable in a group environment.
It turns out that calves reared with their mothers and other herd members tended to be much more active in isolation. They seemed more curious, actively exploring the calving box into which they were placed. In addition, they had lower heart rates during isolation. Interestingly, they also produced the highest level of cortisol, known as the “stress hormone.”
Calves that didn’t get to bond with their mothers didn’t react in the same way. They moved around less and seemed uninterested in their surroundings. They experienced higher heart rates when feeling stress, but produced lower levels of cortisol.
“There are fundamentally different reaction types,” Waiblinger said. “Some animals respond to stress situations with an increased heart rate, others produce cortisol. It is possible that the different rearing treatments result in different reaction types.”
“More Sociable and Socially Competent” Cows
Ultimately, the research team determined that calves raised with their mothers and among other cows became “more sociable and socially competent” adults. Is it any wonder? Living beings, whether human or animal, need others. We all suffer psychologically if we can’t grow up interacting with others as nature intended.
“In the future, we must increasingly consider whether a socially restricted early environment represents the ideal form of animal husbandry,” Waiblinger concluded. Clearly, isolation from others isn’t the ideal life.
Dairy farmers can do better by their cows. Those who don’t allow calves to bond with their mothers make a difficult life even harder. The innocent cows, who live in perpetual service to man’s unhealthy and unnecessary desire for their milk, deserve to live a life among their own kind. Can’t they have at least that much happiness?