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Healthy or happy – but not both? May 28, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
Tags: , , , , ,

Baby calves give bunnies and puppies a run for their money on cuteness. But they present the dairy farmer with a not-so-cute dilemma. Unlike beef calves, dairy calves can’t be left with their moms to grow up – the milk their moms produce has to be sold for human consumption. So the farmer must figure out how to raise them (that is, how to raise the female calves that he’s keeping for his future dairy herd). There are two main options: putting each calf in an individual hutch, and housing groups of calves together in pens. Unfortunately, from the calf’s perspective, neither is ideal.

Calves in hutches spend their babyhood – from the day they are born to about eight weeks of age – profoundly alone. What passes for “companionship” for these calves is the sight of other calves in nearby hutches and the vet or farmer handling them for examinations and shots. However, hutches are popular with farmers, because they prevent disease from spreading from calf to calf.

On the other hand, the alternative, grouping a few calves together in pens, at least gives calves some real companionship. It’s as simple as the fact that they can nose and rub other calves. But this very contact introduces a pathway for disease. It may not be much fun living out your youth alone, but it’s also not much fun to suffer bouts of pneumonia or diarrhea, both of which occur more frequently with group-housed than with single-housed calves.

If we take a cool-headed look at the research that’s been done on this question, it would seem to suggest that individual hutches are better for calves. Not only do they do a better job of keeping calves healthy, but a review of recent work in this area notes that “The social skills of individually penned calves can equal that of group reared calves if they are able to have visual contact with their peers.”* Which leads one to believe that it can’t be so bad for them to be alone.

But I’ve got to admit that one of the most heart-wrenching moments I’ve ever had at a farm was visiting newborn calves in hutches. At Wolf Creek Dairy in Dundas, Minnesota, Barb Liebenstein runs a 480-head conventional dairy farm as part of the Land O’ Lakes co-op. When I visited, Barb had calves from two to four days old in her hutches. Barb and I walked over to one for a closer look, and as soon as we approached, the little one scrambled up on her unsteady legs, took a few steps forward, gave us each an inquisitive glance, and nuzzled her head against Barb’s hand. Even one nuzzle would have been touching, but what stayed with me long after I left the farm was how this calf just couldn’t get enough. Every time Barb took her hand away after a couple of rubs, she stretched out her neck and flipped Barb’s hand up with her nose for more. Seeing this calf beg for a shred of physical closeness from the only living being who happened to be within range… well, you’d have to have had a heart of stone to be unmoved. The irony of the fact that she was begging for the favors of the person who was ultimately responsible for her isolation wasn’t lost on me either.

I’ve also seen group-housed calves. That’s how Michelle and Roger Benrud raise their calves at a dairy about half the size of Barb’s that is part of a Minnesota co-op called Pastureland. Take a look at these pictures of the Liebenstein and Benrud farms and tell me: what do you think?

*Moore et al., “Calf Housing and Environments Series, III: Hutches or Group Pens for Pre-Weaned Calves?” Washington State University Veterinary Medicine Extension, Ag Animal Health Spotlight Newsletter, December 2010.



1. TheGirlandTheGoats - May 28, 2012

A lot of calves get interaction twice a day when they are fed and watered by the person in charge of calves, and most likely that calf you mentioned was trying to suckle especially if it was young and bottle fed relatively recently. At least that was my experience when I raised calves on a smaller dairy farm.

I would love to see some sort of combination, where they spent maybe the first week or couple weeks in individual hutches (especially if they didn’t receive adequate colostrum) and then move to group housing. A lot of farms do eventually house their heifers in group housing, but earlier rather than later might be best.

Liked your post, I can never get enough pictures of calves.

Angelique - May 28, 2012

Thanks for your thoughts! I do wonder if some combination (or hybrid, maybe hutches right next to each other so they can nuzzle?) would work.

2. ~~~S Wave~~~ - May 28, 2012

Interesting quandary, Angelique. I’m eager to read more on your blog. It looks like a lot of fascinating questions! As a thoughtful, open-minded and educated vegan, I love encountering tough questions from all sides and evolving my own philosophies as a result.

These photos are much easier to take in than the photos of the factory farms which put millions of male and female calves through horrendous lives of solitude and neglect. Situations like those pictures above aren’t the norm, are they? Sunlight, grass, space to lie down, occasional affectionate contact with other cows or with humans…the vast majority of calves (the “byproduct” of the dairy industry) do not experience any of this. It makes me turn again to the larger question of why we are removing these calves from their mothers in the first place. With growing evidence of the LACK of benefit of dairy (see the China Study) why are we still so determined to consume another specie’s milk at the expense of the baby animals who actually NEED it? We remain the only species that continues to drink milk after weening and drink another animal’s milk. I know that your post isn’t about the ethics of drinking milk, but to me the question of happy, healthy calves and our milk consumption are inseparable.

Thanks for sharing!!
~~~S Wave~~~

Angelique - May 28, 2012

Thanks for sharing your comments. Indeed neither of these farms is the norm, although it is notable that Liebenstein supplies Land O Lakes, which is the biggest butter brand in the US. In my opinion, we can eat meat and dairy that is humanely and sustainably raised, and the question is, how the hell do you do that? Unfortunately the conventional industry is not doing it, but I do know some farmers that are. I do respect your opinion and the commitment that it takes to go vegan!

~~~S Wave~~~ - May 29, 2012

Thanks, Angelique. It’s been a great choice for me. I suppose there is difficulty in dialoguing about eating animals humanely since what is “humane” is subjective. Whether or not a calf can socialize later in life doesn’t change how I measure the humanity of breaking the calf/mother bonding experience within a few days of a calf’s birth. How do we operationalize “humane,” right?

3. Alaskan Salmon Go (Kinda) Local and Morning Roundup « The Heavy Table – Minneapolis-St. Paul and Upper Midwest Food Magazine and Blog - May 29, 2012

[…] tasting notes on Summit’s Saga IPA (here are our somewhat less formal thoughts), reportage on the lonely state of local dairy calves, the art of amateur coffee roasting, and a taste of Cafe 116 in Fergus Falls. » Alaskan […]

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