Take one look at a dairy calf and you know exactly why so many people are concerned about their well-being- they are adorable! Dairy farmers think they’re pretty cute, too, and valuable, so they want to do everything in their power to ensure they are safe and healthy. There are a lot of questions that surround the management of dairy calves, so we’re going to clear some of that air in this post.
When a calf is born on a dairy, they will typically be removed from their dam (mother) within an hour after birth. This happens for reasons that are beneficial to both the calf and the cow. A cow’s (or any mammal’s) first milk produced after giving birth is called colostrum and it is essential for the calf to consume. It contains antibodies which allow the calf to build a strong immune system. However, some calves aren’t strong nursers and some cows don’t have a great maternal instinct. By removing the calf from the mother and hand-feeding him or her, we can ensure they received an adequate amount of colostrum, and regular milk thereafter. You often can’t tell that a calf isn’t receiving enough milk until he or she starts to lose weight. Bottle or bucket-feeding calves allows us to see much more quickly how well they are eating.
Additionally, calves have sharp teeth and the cow’s udder is usually tender when she freshens, or starts to produce milk. A dairy cows teats are also not as hardy as a beef cow’s teats are, so they don’t take abuse from a nursing calf well. By hand-milking a cow at the very beginning of her lactation, we can protect her teats from harm and prevent her from inadvertently injuring her calf simply because she is sore. Dairy cows naturally produce a great deal of milk- much more than a calf can drink on his or her own. If the calves were left on the cows, they would never fully milk out the cow, leaving her udder full and therefore predisposed to developing mastitis (an infection of the mammary gland). By sending the girls to the milking parlor, we ensure she is milked out and therefore has a healthy udder.
Safety and health of the calf, however, are the main reasons we remove calves from cows and house them separately. They are housed in individual hutches until they are a few months old. They have weak immune systems and keeping them in with the milking herd, or even in groups with other calves, would expose them to harmful bacteria and unsanitary conditions- not to mention physically dangerous situations. They have room to stretch their legs in the hutches, a warm and dry bedded area, and plenty of individualized attention from the farmers to ensure a healthy and safe beginning to their lives!