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The Cow With Calf Question from a Compassion Point of View

When we think about compassion, we want to think not only of our fellow human beings, but our fellow creatures and all of life. In this blog, Eva Mutua MSc, recently graduated in Applied Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare from the Royal Dick Vet School, University of Edinburgh, writes about her work on the relationship between cows and their calves: the compassion existing between them, and the farming practices that we can develop with compassion so as to allow mother and infant to be together.

Photograph of a cow with her calf in a field.
Image by Wilma Finlay of the Rainton farm

Cow with calf; this is not an everyday term to most of us, in the United Kingdom and beyond, cows and calves are separated at 24 hours of birth in most dairy conventional systems. Although in recent times, with an increased knowledge and awareness of positive animal welfare, there has been a slow but steady uptake of the cow with calf system that involves letting out the mother cow with her calf for a couple of months after birth. So, most of us ask the question, why the separation in the conventional system, or why let out the cow with calf in the cow with calf system; this blog will help us understand the cow with calf system better and why we should lean towards letting out the cow and calf longer from a compassion point of view.

Animals are sentient beings; in that they can experience, feel, and perceive subjectively. Studies have confirmed that animals have cognitive abilities and that they are able to make choices. Although, in most cases we tend to make decisions for our animals without taking a step back to reflect upon what the animals would want and whether our choices give them the opportunity to experience positive animal welfare. What would make the animals live a good quality healthy life? For instance, I am not a coffee person, this does not mean that coffee is not good it just means that I do not enjoy coffee. But a coffee lover would have me have coffee with the thinking that I would enjoy coffee as much as they do, but unless they ask me or give me the chance to choose, I would just end up not enjoying my drinks at all but just sulk through them. This is what we do with our animals most times, we tend to think that what we think is right for them is the best thing. There are instances when this is right, like in the controlling of our animals’ diets to avoid obesity and other complications, but other times this behaviour compromises our animals’ ability to express themselves or do what they are motivated to perform.

Cows are motivated to perform maternal behaviours, and this provides them with positive animal welfare. I recently worked with some cows and calves at the Rainton organic farm in Dumfries and Galloway, and watching these pairs carry on with their day to day activities was really enlightening. The cows had a great motivation to nurse their calves, in my observations the cows would relentlessly lick their sleepy calves and bellow at them until the calves had a drink. Most calves spent their time lying next to their mothers during resting times, and they had a choice of when they wanted to play with their mates. Through my study, I perceived their behaviour as not really something that the cows and calves do blindly, but something that they are motivated to perform; something that seems to complete them.  Interestingly, studies have shown that calves let out with their dams have better social skills compared to calves that are artificially reared.

The main reason behind cow-calf separation is that the conventional system aims at producing high levels of milk. We cannot ignore the fact that the population is steadily increasing, and the demand of food products is subsequently increasing. The question remains: Do we compromise the quality of life of our animals in order to have more milk or is there another way? The answer is that there is a way around compromising the animals’ welfare. With the cow and calf system being fairly new, more studies are being carried out to enhance it. It turns out that there are a couple of things that can be done in the cow with calf system to improve the productivity of the cows. The basic things include good management protocols involving optimal hygiene levels to prevent diseases like mastitis that compromise milk yield; keeping the Vet at hand for herd health checks; and where possible, have the simplest form of Precision Livestock Farming, such as cameras, to enable monitoring of animals to spot for any behaviour changes that might be indicative of disease.

A study that we conducted at the Rainton organic farm in Dumfries and Galloway, which practices the cow with calf system, indicated that cows that had female calves returned more milk to the milking parlour. This study shows that there is a way to ensure good productivity and to enables animals to live good quality lives. A tip to the farmers is that the use of sexed semen to have female calves might just increase return to the milking parlour and keep our cows and calves happy together.

In conclusion, at most times there is a tight compromise and a thin line between what animals really require for good welfare and what we think they require. It takes a little bit more effort and research to be able to understand animals better and this is being done so perfectly and passionately with every waking moment by animal welfare researchers. All animals are different, and to that end, I once heard of a dog whose best positive reinforcement was getting dusted with a bit of sand whenever it did anything good. This was weird because I expected that most dogs love treats and all, but this dog preferred a sand dust to treats. Just as we all are interestingly different in one way or another so are our animals. The best thing we can do for them is make a little effort in understanding them and what they really need, because in the long run I believe that there is always a way around the compromise, and that we and the animals can be a happier lot.

With love and compassion by Eva Mutua.