Cow-Calf Dairying, a Pirate's Code #1

Christine Page

When customers come to collect their milk from our farm shop I often take them down to the field to see the cows and calves. When you see them together, it becomes obvious what cow-calf dairying means. 

However, it may not be obvious why calves in the conventional dairy industry are routinely removed from their dam. Why can’t dairy cows, who are selectively bred to produce more milk than their calves need, simply keep their calves and give extra for us humans to drink? 

Why conventional dairy cows don’t keep their calves

The answer is simple: most consumers are not willing to pay the true cost of this kind of high-welfare milk production. Many of us have been conditioned into a false perception of milk as a low value product, sold at 'loss-leader' prices by supermarkets, often cheaper than bottled water.

There are five main reasons why a litre of milk is considerably more expensive to produce from a cow-calf dairy compared to a conventional dairy and why, therefore, conventional dairy cows don’t keep their calves

  1. Time: Labour costs money and the increased labour associated with cow-calf dairying stems from the significant extra time required to develop special relationships with the cows whilst training them to overcome their innate desire to only give milk to their calves. Additional labour is also needed to separate the cows and calves in preparation for milking and/or to manage the practicalities of having cows and calves around or in the milking parlour at milking time.
  2. Facilities: Additional infrastructure is needed both when cows are out grazing and also during the winter. Most dairy cows are housed for around 5 months over winter. Standard practice on conventional dairy farms is to use cubicles as these are cheap to manage. But cubicles are not practical or hygienic for calves, so cows with calves at foot need to be loose housed on straw in large airy barns. This adds significant cost to the operation, not just in initial infrastructure but in ongoing costs of buying straw, which is becoming increasingly more expensive, and also in the labour to bed the cows down each day.
  3. Lower Yields: Milk yields in a cow-calf system are significantly lower than in a conventional system for several reasons. First, cow-calf dairy cows are usually milked only once a day because it becomes impractical to milk more than this with calves suckling. Second, you are constantly playing second fiddle to the cow’s innate desire to give milk only to her calf, so even when she does give her milk in the parlour, she rarely gives it all until after her calf is weaned. Third, calves can drink significant quantities of milk as they grow, far more than they actually need or indeed is good for them. So even if you can manage the delicate art of creating a bond with your cow so that she wants to give her milk to you as well as to her calf, you still have to figure out how to stop the calf drinking it all! And fourth, cow-calf systems routinely keep the calves with the cows for a more natural length of time, which is often twice or more as long as conventionally raised calves are fed milk.
  4. Learning the Art: Cow-calf dairying is a perplexing and specialist art with innumerable challenges. It can take years to perfect, and even the most experienced can hit unforeseen stumbling blocks. It requires commitment, tenacity and patience. There are few resources for farmers who seek knowledge and mistakes can be very costly in lost productivity, especially when multiplied up by many cows. So without a known market of customers willing to pay the true value, the idea of stepping off the conventional conveyor belt into an abyss of unknowns to try and produce milk from cows who also raise their own calves, is a leap that is understandably beyond comprehension for most dairy farmers.
  5. Best Practice: The type of dairy farmer who might transition to a cow-calf system would be one already inclined to best practice in the industry. They would probably feed less grain, use fewer inputs, be more focused on sustainability and animal welfare and more likely to be organic than is the norm in a conventional system. So they are already producing a better product that will be more expensive than average to produce.

Cow-calf dairying must have been practiced since bovines were first domesticated over 10,000 years ago. It would be a fascinating project to look back over the millennia of civilisations to see how and where calves were first separated from their dams in order to increase the amount of milk available for human consumption. 

Regardless of how cow-calf dairying has been practiced in the past, the farmers would have experienced many of the challenges we experience today. My aim in this series of blogs is to unpack some of these challenges and offer suggestions for those wishing to try this more ethical way of milk production. 

Today’s big dairy business

The dairy industry today is big business. There are around 1.9 million dairy cows in the UK. Both large conglomerate processors wanting cheap raw materials for processed food and also supermarket demand for milk to fill a ‘loss-leader’ slot, have de-valued milk into a highly processed global commodity. This has driven prices down and many small dairy farmers out of business. Those that remain have had to get bigger and more efficient in order to survive. 

As explained, this type of efficiency has no place for the additional costs and lower returns of allowing the calves to suckle on their dams. So in both conventional and organic systems, calves are routinely removed from their mothers within the first 24-48 hours. They are bottle-fed either with fresh cows milk or with a milk-replacer made with skimmed milk or whey powder: 2 litres every 12 hours is standard practice. In order to meet minimum welfare standards, the calves must be given milk until 8 weeks of age in conventional systems, and until 12 weeks of age in organic systems. Even 12 weeks, however, is significantly shorter than the period for which a young bovine might naturally suckle on its dam.

Cow-calf dairying

Nonetheless, even though cow-calf dairying plays no part in the mainstream dairy industry, there is a handful of pioneers now producing more ethical milk and, in one form or another, raising calves on their mothers. It’s a start, and hopefully a trend, that will lead to many more cow-calf dairies popping up around the country in response to demand from a small but growing number of compassionate consumers.

Running a cow-calf dairy really is an art. In these blogs I will cover the system we use at Smiling Tree Farm and the reasons why. But I would stress that it’s just a guide, not hard and fast rules. It’s what I call my ‘Pirate’s Code’ for cow-calf dairying (with apologies to those who haven’t seen the movie Pirates of the Caribbean)!

In order to get to grips with this rare art and to better appreciate some of the challenges and potential pitfalls, there are some key physiological and psychological factors that it’s important to understand. For cows: how milk is made and, particularly, the process of release (‘let down’), which I will cover in my next post. And for heifer calves: the growth and development of both their rumen and their udder.


More in this series on Cow-Calf Dairying:
#1 Why conventional dairy cows don’t keep their calves (you are here)
#2 Milk synthesis & let down
#3 Rumen development
#4 Udder development
#5 The Smiling Tree Farm system, STEPS 1&2
#6 The Smiling Tree Farm system, STEPS 3&4
#7 The Smiling Tree Farm system, STEPS 5&6
#8 The Smiling Tree Farm system, STEPS 7&8

Need more help? If, having read through the Pirate's Code series you have further questions and would like more help, or you would like to keep in touch with other like-minded ethical dairy producers, why not join our small discussion forum for those wishing to practice low-impact, small-scale, high-welfare dairying aimed at both backyard house cow owners and micro-dairies. Join here

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