Monday, March 4, 2024

Cow-calf contact could be dairy’s ethical future

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North Waikato farm helps convince UK Nuffield Scholar and dairy farmers to leave calves with mums.
Chris Falconer, Waerenga, for Dairy Farmer magazine, Friday 6 May 2022. Photo: Stephen Barker/ Barker Photography. ©Dairy Farmer Mag / Global HQ
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Dairy farming might have to adopt cow-calf contact systems to retain its social licence.

So says United Kingdom dairy farmer and Nuffield Scholar Anna Bowen, who intends to adopt the practice herself after visiting a north Waikato dairy farmer and others, and running a successful trial on her own farm.

Cow-calf contact is where cows and calves are kept together for a minimum of eight weeks, and the calf gets its nutrition from its mother or a foster cow.

In such systems calves have either full, partial or half-day contact.

In the UK the system is associated with micro dairies that rely on its marketing value to boost their incomes, she said.

In Germany there is a 1000-cow robot operation that has adopted the practice. In Norway, where small herds predominate, 4% of farms have adopted the practice, with 15% considering it, Bowen said.

These farms were not compelled to adopt the system by regulations, she said.

In Australia and New Zealand there are examples of large pasture-based operations that have adopted the practice, she said.

Speaking at a Nuffield event in the UK, Bowen said as part of her research she asked, “If we were to start dairy farming tomorrow, what do we change?” 

Dairy farming has to retain its social licence and the key is to listen to consumers, she said.

“Research shows we can’t educate people into accepting practices they find ethically wrong;  we must challenge ourselves to do better,” Bowen said.

In the UK the euthanizing of dairy bull calves – bobby calves – is banned, but the stigma endures, she said.

Bowen said a key question is whether the dairy industry could adopt cow-calf contact systems without relying on premiums for milk.

Research shows calves in such systems outperform those separated from their mothers at an early age, she said.

Done well, the health outcomes in such systems exceed other systems, she said.

“Young heifers perform better in the milk herd as they already experienced the adult environment,” Bowen said.

North Waikato dairy farmer Chris Falconer, whose own operation helped persuade Bowen to adopt the practice, said he keeps calves with cows for 10 to 12 weeks.

Falconer began cow-calf contact trials because he supplies milk to Happy Milk.

Happy Milk encourages cow-calf contact on animal welfare grounds.

Falconer said a combination of three things stops farmers from adopting the practice.

“The first question they have is ‘How hard is it to manage?’ The second question is ‘How much milk do you lose?’ ”

Thirdly, there isn’t an established market or premium for milk produced with the practice, he said.

“The first question is about management. Why is that? Why is the received wisdom that cows and calves together are a nightmare? [It] means that they’re either unwilling to or haven’t considered fundamental change to [their] system,” he said.

“The big game-changer wasn’t anything other than me just thinking about it differently. 

“If you ask a farmer about animal welfare, mostly it becomes a farmer-centric conversation. 

What about me? How do I manage that? Can I make money? You know, it’s animal welfare. It’s not farmer welfare. Invariably, that’s where it gets turned to, whether it is farming leadership or farming voices,” Falconer said.

No real infrastructure changes were needed to adopt the system, he said.

“I adapted a couple of gates around my cow shed and cut them in half so calves could go under them and cows are contained. It allows calves to do what they want to do, instead of you pushing them. 

“The breakthrough was in not managing the calf, [but] giving calves options.”

“Some calves really want to be with their moms, others aren’t bothered. To take all of the stress out of the situation, [let] the calves choose. Then everything gets calm. They learn fast,” he said.

“They just end up going out the side gate of the yard and waiting for the mothers.  Because you’re not stressing the calf, it’s not vocalising and not winding its mother up,” Falconer said.

Falconer said there were milk losses, “because calves drink”.

“It’s really difficult to quantify, we’re not scientific about it.”

Research from the University of Tasmania shows a cow who has a calf feeding does not initially perform well in the shed.

However, post weaning such a cow outperforms other cows, he said.

“Because you get compensatory production post weaning, it closes that production loss down to only about 3% or 4%,” Falconer said.

Calves in this system outperformed others and weighed 20kg more, he said.

There were also labour savings in high-pressure times.

Falconer said he does not think the movement will grow in New Zealand because the social pressure is not there.

In general New Zealanders are aware that calves are taken away from cows and accept the practice to some extent.

However, as urbanisation increased this could change, he said.

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