Dairy farmers views sought on cow-with-calf systems

The fate of dairy calves has become an emotive subject, brought into the public realm by images of young calves being separated from their mothers at birth. 

Keeping calves with their mothers for the first months of life, while continuing to milk the cows for commercial purposes, might prove to be a more acceptable system for consumers, so scientists are keen to collect data on industry attitudes to the move.

Traditionally, dairy calves are separated from their dams within 24 hours of birth, but this project - led by researchers at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) - investigates the cow-with-calf system where calves are kept with their mothers for up to five months. 

Running the survey is Dr Orla Shortall, of the Hutton’s social, economic and geographical sciences department, who commented: “We would like to encourage farmers to take part in our research. The questions look at farmers’ motivation, what’s currently stopping them, and what would help them in the future.

“We hope that the data will inform future policy and help develop the right resources for farmers interested in operating the cow with calf system," she continued. "There are very few farmers operating the system in the UK and as a result little research and advisory support.

"Our existing research suggests there’s a consumer market for milk produced in this way and it can provide rewards to the farmer, so part of the aim of the project is to support farmers interested in trialling the system.”

In March 218, the Scottish Farmer met with Dumfries and Galloway-based organic dairy farmer David Finlay who had recently launched The Ethical Dairy – making the decision to transition to a cow-with-calf system.

At the time he told The SF: “What we’re doing is de-intensifying dairy farming. Our goal was to farm in a way that is resilient, ecologically sound and less stressful for the animals and the people working with them. So we’re leaving the calves with their mothers to suckle. It means we take less milk from each cow but we’re seeing real benefits from this approach – longer living, healthier cows, less antibiotic use, faster growing calves and less purchased feed.”

Mr Finlay admitted that the transition had seen his milk volumes take a hit and that it had been 'financially extremely challenging' but added that the cows and calves love it: "Our cows are living around twice as long as those on an intensive dairy farm and our calves are growing almost twice as quickly as typical dairy calves. At the same time our reliance on inputs, such as cereals and chemicals, has reduced substantially and we’ve increased the net amount of food in our global food system by around 80%.”

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