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Consumers want dairy calves with their mothers

ST. ISIDORE — The change may be years away, but get ready for the day when dairy calves are raised alongside their milking mothers — suckling at their udders for weeks or even months after birth and traipsing around the barn or (better yet) pasture with the production herd. Growing consumer unease with the long-standard practice of separating cows from their young points to that eventual paradigm shift. Or at least that’s according to the keynote speaker at the recent Eastern Ontario Dairy Days conference.

Nobody has quite figured out how to pull off the utopian idea, but so-called prolonged cow-calf contact “is something that’s coming,” Dr. Marina von Keyserlingk assured polite milk producers — at other conferences farmers yelled at her — while speaking at St. Isidore and the next day at Kemptville.

The University of British Columbia professor and animal welfare research chair advised that more study was needed to establish the optimum period of time that a calf should maintain contact with its mother. One European farm arbitrarily settled on four months.

The Dairy Farmers of Canada recently commissioned von Keyserlingk and her colleagues to conduct further research.

She stressed that sustainable dairy farms must strive to remain “socially acceptable.” Ultimately, that means doing what the consumer wants. The “thoughtful person on the street” is troubled at the idea of removing calves from their mothers, she asserted. While farmers are focused on animal health, consumers are now “worried about the emotional states of animals,” she said.

Von Keyserlingk pointed to a 2016 survey that asked consumers to describe the ideal dairy farm. “What we got was cows on pasture and calves at foot.”

Another survey of nearly 1,500 Americans and Canadians found they supported the concept of a single cow raising her own calf as the most ideal cow-calf management system. She compared the separation of cows and calves to tail-docking, which ended in 2008 partly because of the public’s “visceral reaction” to the practice.

The science shows no disease-prevention or performance benefits often attributed to early cow-calf separation, she said. A 2019 meta-analysis of more than 60 scientific papers found that a prolonged suckling period lowered calf mortality, did not worsen Johne’s disease transmission and reduced scours. The same analysis found lower cow mastitis rates.

Another meta-analysis of more than 50 papers, found that by keeping calves with their mothers for a longer period of time had a more positive than negative impact on milk production. The calve, more often than now, also gained more weight.

Von Keyserlink also brandished survey evidence suggesting a good number of dairy farmers disagree with separating calves from their mothers hours after they’re born. It’s a good strategy to admit that fact when a member of the public asks about the practice, she advised. “Start with the fact that you hate it. Because now you’re aligning with their values. And say to them, ‘Look, I don’t know how to do this right now, but in 20 or 25 years, if somebody can figure out how I can keep cows and calves together, I’m the first one there.’”

“But if you just say, look, you don’t understand my business; trust me, you’ve lost them.”

Consumers need to be kept onside, she added later, “because in many ways, you need them a whole lot more than they need you.”

Ottawa dairy farmer Peter Ruiter told Farmers Forum there was “not a chance” that prolonged cow-calf contact is currently achievable. “If you’re already a well-managed farm, I don’t think you’re going to get the results they’re seeing from cow-calf relationships,” Ruiter said.

Ruiter regularly hosts visitors and noted that no one has ever challenged him for raising calves separately from cows. “They don’t. I put them in human terms. They go into an ‘incubator,’ as happens in a hospital.

Ruiter thinks that too much credence is given to the 5 % of the population that will never change its mind. If you tell people the story of how good a job farmers are doing, “I think that alleviates 90 % of the problem,” he said.

Brockville dairy farmer Ralph Williams said the concept was good, “you’re going to need a bigger facility, more costs. And then you’re going to have to have some way to put them in a different place when they reach a certain size. “It’s an awful expense.”

Said Russell dairy farmer Ian Burnett: “Assuming somebody figures out a workable system, it would be something to think about when building a new barn a decade from now.”

“I think there’s a lot of studies that have to be done,” Moose Creek producer Sonia Martin said. I’m sure it’s doable, but there’s a lot of thought that would have to go into it. I had a cow give twins overnight, and by the next morning she had squashed one. Don’t tell me there’s no fatalities (having calves in with the production herd). Let’s be real here.”

Source : Farmersforum

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