A field of cows with suckling calves may sound like a normal rural scene. In fact, the view at David Finlay’s farm on the Dumfries and Galloway coast is a sight you’d be unlikely to see on any other dairy farm in the UK.
Almost all calves are separated from cows within hours or days of birth on dairy farms. This allows farmers to sell the milk that the calves would otherwise drink.
But it is a reality of dairy farming that jars with animal welfare campaigners and consumers, and one of the sector’s three biggest emotive issues, along with giving cows outdoor access and the killing of male calves straight after birth.
“It’s the one thing we’ve always been asked about by mums on our farm tours,” says Finlay. “They just don’t like seeing calves separated from their mothers so soon.”
The public reaction has led to a slow growth of a new sector, calling itself “ethical dairy farming”, where the calves are not removed immediately from their mothers. One expert estimates that around 400 dairy farms in Europe and Australia are trialling methods – varying widely from one farm to the next – for what is known as “calf at foot” systems.
With a herd of 125 cows, Finlay’s farm near Castle Douglas in south-west Scotland is the largest known producer in Europe to introduce the calf at foot system. But the switch, now in its third year, has been far from easy.
Finlay began the project in 2017 with the hope of proving such a method could work at a bigger scale. “The first year was disastrous,” he says, admitting that he wanted to call it quits. “We just couldn’t get the cows away from the calves and into the milking parlour. For weeks we’d be dragging the cows in there.
“It took a long time for them to trust that the calves were still going to be there when they came back. It was so much stress as the cows just weren’t used to it and didn’t know what the rules were.”
Finlay had to be talked into keeping the system going for another year by his family and other staff after his herdsman grew sceptical about the project and left, but by the second year the cows had begun to grow used to having their offspring around.
The calves still need to be separated after weaning at around five months, a process Finlay and his new herdsman Charles Ellett have learned to manage by starting off with overnight periods of separation first.
“That first day we don’t open the gates in the morning though there is a huge outcry from the calves and cows,” says Finlay, who has got round it by introducing a surrogate mother – usually an older cow not producing much milk. They then use this cow to lead all the calves into a field on the other side of the farm to settle them.
The initial period of overnight separation helps create social bonds between the calves, says Finlay, making the final separation easier. The female calves will then stay on the farm to become milking cows, while the male calves are sold after five to seven months to produce veal.
Leaving calves with their mothers has been found to reduce mortality rates and help them grow quicker by having all-day access to their mother’s milk, rather than a milk powder substitute. The suckling can also help protect cows against mastitis, one of the biggest disease risks facing dairy farming today.
However, the suckling adds up to “crazy amounts of milk” lost to the farmer to sell, says Finlay. He estimates his losses at more than 2,000 litres per cow being taken by the calf, which equates to upwards of £500 in lost revenue based on the current UK average milk price. The cows also hold back fat for their calves when taken into the milking parlour, “giving us semi-skimmed milk”, jokes Finlay.
But Finlay believes the model can work and that the improvement in the health and immune systems of the young calves will yield long-term dividends that will compensate, to some extent, for loss of milk. And he has already seen a surge in interest in what he is doing from across the UK and overseas.
Last year he raised more than £50,000 through a crowdfunding campaign to support the farm and its cheese production facilities. Conversely, vegan activism has also helped, he says.
“There was no demand for it before, but vegan campaigners have raised awareness [among consumers of higher animal welfare] and created a market for us to supply dairy to. Plant-based milks have also got people used to paying more for dairy,” he says.
It is the loss in milk more than anything else that Finlay thinks will put off all but a niche group of dairy farmers from ever considering it unless they can secure a premium for the leftover milk. However, he is hopeful that consumer support for more ethical farming approaches will be boosted by activism.
But other dairy farmers remain sceptical of the health and welfare benefits for the cows and calves – as well as the economics of making it viable. “It’s only ethical if you don’t know what the downsides are,” says National Farmers’ Union dairy board member Phil Latham, who runs a dairy farm in Cheshire and separates his calves at one week.
“Yes, the calves get to spend more time with their mother, but there are a whole host of compromises with an increase in disease risk from the mixing of different age groups and a lack of control over the calf’s food intake. The longer you leave the calf on the cow, the bigger the stress when you do separate them.
“It’s pandering to urban ignorance. If he can get a market premium from doing it and survive the milk losses then good luck to him, but it’s not about maximising welfare in my mind,” he says.
A recently published review of scientific evidence found that while longer cow-calf contact had positive behavioural impacts for calves, early separation within 24 hours reduced distress for cows and calves.
“The faster you break the bond [between cow and calf] the fewer vocalisations you are going to get from calves,” says Marina Von Keyserlingk, a professor in animal welfare at the University of British Columbia and co-author of the review.
Helen Browning, dairy farmer and CEO of the organic trade body the Soil Association, separates her calves and cows within 24 hours, but then keeps them with a surrogate mother cow who has been retired or rested from the dairy herd. Under organic standards, calves are separated from their mothers after birth, but are always kept in groups and must be given cow’s milk for their first 12 weeks.
“Calves hate being weaned and cows hate their calves being taken away, whether after one day or five months. But it is better to do it before a bond has developed. In nature cows would live together as a family with cows and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, so we are already interfering a lot with that family process,” she says.
In terms of cow and calf health and welfare, farm vets say separation is not a priority. “If you really want to improve animal welfare then we should try to tackle lameness, calf mortality and ensuring the calf gets sufficient quantities of colostrum,” says Dr Kathryn Ellis, a farm animal vet at the University of Glasgow.
Browning says dairy farmers are looking to learn from what Finlay is doing, but that the industry still needs to think through what is best for the welfare of both calves and cows being kept to produce milk. “We should think about what issue we’re trying to resolve. Is it an emotive issue or a welfare issue? I think it is the former.”
Despite the scepticism, Von Keyserlingk estimates that more than 400 dairy farms are trialling calf at foot systems in Europe and Australia. Not far from Finlay’s farm in south-west Scotland, another dairy farmer keeping calves with their mothers has recently started selling his milk to consumers at £1.59 a pint.
“This could be the norm in 20-30 years, just as tie-stalls were in the past. But it’s a fundamental change for how farms operate so we need to help farmers figure out how to make it better for the health and welfare of cows and calves and at the same time practical for farmers,” says von Keyserlingk.
“To better support farmers in this transition, new research is needed on how these systems may be managed to function best for the cows and calves, including reducing the risk of currently common production diseases such as mastitis and lameness,” she adds.