Calf Care Part 1: Why do dairy farmers separate calves from their mothers?


At a holiday party last fall I had a casual conversation about our farm with another local farmer’s wife whose exposure to agriculture was primarily related to raising grain and beef. She mentioned that her husband had somewhat explained to her why dairy farmers keep our newborn calves in hutches, but her original instincts, like many people’s, told her that it was cruel to separate a mother cow and her calf. I listed several of the reasons we do things the way that we do, highlighting some differences between dairy cows and beef cows at a cow-calf operation, and I think many of them were not part of her husband’s explanation and had not occurred to her.

I have previously written about the first few hours of a calf’s life on our farm (read: A Calf Is Born ), but at that time I didn’t address the why behind our actions. Based on the conversation mentioned above, I set out to write a post explaining the many reasons we house our calves in hutches (referred to as “huts” at our farm). I quickly realized, however, that I first needed to explain why we remove the calves from their mothers shortly after their birth before I could elaborate on their housing from that point forward. Contrary to what many may believe or infer, there are numerous benefits to separation for both the cow and the calf, as well as the obvious benefit to our business of milk production.

Benefits to the calf

When a calf is born, it can usually stand within the first hour of its life. Usually is a key word because for some calves it takes longer.  A calf has to be able to stand in order to drink from its mother. When a calf drinks from its mother, it’s difficult to tell if the calf is getting enough to eat until it starts to gain or lose weight. By separating the pair and harvesting the colostrum for the calf, we can be sure that it gets plenty to eat very quickly after it’s born. Colostrum is the mother’s first milk, and it is crucial to the calf’s immunity. The quantity and quality of colostrum that the calf gets potentially impact its health for the rest of its life. Some cows don’t have enough colostrum or give colostrum that is lower quality. We reserve and freeze extra colostrum to feed in these situations so that every calf gets the antibodies it needs to jumpstart its immune system.

newborn calf
A cow cleaning off her newborn calf. This activity also benefits both the cow and calf.

Additionally, some cows aren’t great mothers. Beef producers who do leave calves with cows have spent generations selecting for maternal traits in their breeding programs. Dairy farmers have not. We have some cows that are great mothers, but others seem to completely lack the instincts required to raise a calf. Those cows might not clean off their calves, and some will actually leave the calf lay to go eat or drink or whatever else might interest them more than feeding their newborn calf. We do prefer the mother to clean off her own calf before we separate them, but not all cows will even complete that first task of motherhood. In extreme cases, a cow will even step on or charge her own calf.

Benefits to the cow

As I mentioned, some cows aren’t really ready to be mothers. In these cases, attending to the calf is very stressful for the cow. Delivering the calf is significant stress on her body and caring for the calf immediately afterward can basically overwhelm her. This is especially true for a cow that had a particularly difficult calving or a cow that has delivered twins. One cow rarely handles two calves with grace.

Newborn twin calves
Newborn twins bundled in straw to warm up and dry off in a shed on a cold evening. Their mom tried to clean them off, but was overwhelmed and had given up when we moved them inside.

In addition, dairy cows’ udders are not as durable as beef cows. Again, they have not generally been bred for calf-rearing abilities. Calves are born with teeth, and they are very sharp. Young calves also have pretty remarkable jaw strength. I’ve had bloody knuckles from letting a week-old calf suck on my fingers for a few seconds while training it to drink from a bucket. Besides their sharp teeth, a calf’s instinct to get more milk is to head-butt its mother’s udder. Most cows experience some swelling in their udder when they first freshen, and neither of these traits is going to be welcomed by a cow with a sore and swollen udder.

Mutual benefits

Separating dairy cows and calves reduces the risk of infection and disease. A dairy cow hopefully produces more milk than a beef cow, which is more milk than a single calf can drink. That’s how she pays her feed bill. If we were to leave the calf with the cow (thus, not milking her out), there is a good chance she would develop a mammary infection called mastitis. This infection could potentially be dangerous for both the cow and the calf that is drinking from an infected udder. If untreated, mastitis can even be fatal.

Calf and Cow
A calf trying to keep up with it’s mother as we bring the pair in from the pasture to milk the cow and then feed the calf.

Speaking of infection, sanitation is also a huge benefit of this separation. By removing the calf quickly and spraying its naval with an iodine solution, we minimize the bacteria that enter its blood stream directly through its naval, where the umbilical cord was attached. We also minimize the bacteria that the calf ingests by feeding it using a clean bottle. Cows are all too well-known for their willingness to lay in manure, even when clean bedding is available. Any manure or bacteria on a cow’s udder would be ingested by the calf when it tried to drink. This is better for the cow as well. When a cow is milked, she is vulnerable to mammary infection through her teat ends. This is true whether we are milking her or her calf is drinking. The difference is that we clean and disinfect her teat ends both before and after milking, protecting her from such an infection and improving the quality of her milk.

Calf's first colostrum.
Feeding a calf it’s first bottle of colostrum. This meal will impact the calf’s immune system throughout it’s life.

Our motives for separating cows and calves are simple – we want to provide the best standard of care that we can for both animals. I can also assure you that the vast majority of cows don’t give a second thought to their calf once it is out of their sight. We as dairy farmers, on the other hand, put a lot of thought into calf care, and I’ll elaborate on that in Part 2 next week.

Update: Calf Care Part 2: Why do dairy farmers house calves in hutches?

28 thoughts on “Calf Care Part 1: Why do dairy farmers separate calves from their mothers?

  1. It’s difficult from this to imagine how cows could ever have bred without human intervention in the first place, how fortunate they are that we came along, don’t you just wish you could be a dairy farmer’s cow

    1. Tashi, sometimes I do! Having someone prepare my meals, clean up after me and put my needs before their own doesn’t sound too bad.

      Also, cattle were first domesticated thousands of years ago (10000+ if you believe Wikipedia), so it is hard to imagine what a “wild” cow would look like.

      1. “Having someone prepare my meals, clean up after me and put my needs before their own doesn’t sound too bad.” And don’t forget, “steal my babies, exploit my reproduction and motherhood, and kill me when I’m 3.5 years old and no longer produce enough milk to justify my existence as a commodity.”

        Sounds dreamy. And not immoral at all.

  2. Good topic!

    We separate our calves for two main reasons: 1. Modern dairy cows give a LOT more milk than one calf can consume. 2. Calves get socialized to humans when they share that close relationship of being fed and cared for. Essential, because if I am going to put my head down under the body of a 1000# animal, I want her to trust me and not kick me or be spooked!

    If someone thinks that’s mean, then I try to reassure them that we always let the mom care for her baby at birth, clean her up, get her dry. The moms get to see their babies every day on their way to be milked (it’s cute, they like to moo and sniff their babies, but then they head on to the milking parlor, content we’re caring for their “kids” sufficiently). And best of all, our cows get to live with their heifers once the heifers are of age to be bred and put in with the milk cow. Some get sold, but we try to keep mother/daughter pairs together when we sell, and my original herd pair is still together after 10 years, with another daughter just old enough to breed. So, that keeps me content that we’re doing a good job, even if “separation” for a few months is a difficult concept to understand.

    1. Thanks for your comment. You make a good point about socialization as an added benefit of our pesonal interaction with the calves, but I find that it’s a double edged sword. Comfort with humans is important, but pet cows can also be extremely stubborn!

      1. Trinity, calves staying with cows would likely hurt our profit due to illness and veterinary cost, but you might be interested to know that feeding milk replacer is more expensive for us than feeding cows milk would be. But it’s safer (and more consistent) for the calf than unpasteurized milk, so it’s a cost we gladly incur.

  3. Thank you for this article! I just used it to help explain why we separate our cows & calves in response to a facebook post 🙂

      1. I doubt the 10, 000 year stat there bud. Humans haven’t been domestic for any longer than say, at a stretch, say AD. And this is what is so wrong with the internet. Nothing said has to be factualized. Therefore if the statement is well stated and the guy saying it is clean cut and handsome and well politically believable well the fact becomes fable.

      2. Scott, the exact number of years is irrelevant. Domestic cattle are mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible, so I I guess the wild humans owned domestic cattle in your version. Point is, there are no wild cows. If there ever were, it was so long ago that some handsome and politically believable person would have to tell us about it for it to be true.

      3. Cows have been domesticated for no more than 2000 years. And in the Bible book of Genesis, God gave man permission to consume meat. He also is a loving God, so he also would want us to treat every one of his creations, which include cows with kindness and give them the best care that we can. To me personally it is heart wrenching to know that a calf is taken away from it’s mother, but I can see why it is done. It truly is to benefit the calf. It is not natural to do this. It is very unnatural by far, but the percentage rate of a calf being allowed to suckle and surviving to an adult is very low. And most would adventually die off. But notice the reasons why wild cows have and are yet dieing. Is has nothing to do with leaving them to attend to nature, but it’s man’s interference.
        Until the sixteenth century, 12 species of wild cattle were distributed across Asia, Europe, Africa and North America. Today, there remain only 10 species that are restricted to tiny, fragmented populations in a few countries. Increasing human populations have encroached upon wild cattle habitat and all extant species are threatened by human activities. Hunting and illegal trade are the most common and potentially severe threats. Unfortunately, the ecological characteristics of these species, which typically include a slow growth rate, delayed maturity and low fecundity, are all factors which exacerbate the threats they face by limiting their ability to recover from the more serious dangers posed by human exploitation.

      4. Nope, there are lots of wild cows and bulls in India. The babies are not separated from their mothers and they do just fine. They travel in packs together in villages and seem to be enjoying themselves, there is always plenty of food for them to find. You might be interested to know that they create deep family and community bonds with each other and live out their natural life spans which are quite long when not cut short by a dairy farmer. Cows are very social animals.

      5. Please note there is a difference between wild and feral or free range…I would contend those are still domestic cattle in Indian villages. Cows are very social in a dairy herd as well, but in my experience it’s more about friends than family.

  4. Um there had to be wild cattle at some point otherwise where did they come from? We didn’t genetically make them in a lab. As far as I’m concerned every animal has been wild at some point. And by the way the only reason I found this page is my neighbors cows are mooing all night so I looked up why they separate calves as I am assuming that’s what all the mooing is about. They have been doing it for days and it’s annoying.

    1. Jayda, no male calves can produce milk. Our bull calves get the same start as our heifers – colostrum, naval dip, etc. When they’re a few days old, we sell them to a local beef farmer who raises them in a calf barn until weaning and on pasture after that. When they reach mature weight, he sells them for beef.

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