Have you ever looked at pictures of tiny calves in single hutches or pens like those below and thought “That’s not Britain, it’s America. We don’t do things like this.” Well, you might not be the only one. I only recently realised how strong this perception is and that people outright refuse to believe this is a standard practice on UK farms.
A calf would naturally suckle from her mother for nine months to a year but calves born on dairy farms are taken away from their mothers within two days from birth. Whilst males might be only kept alive for a short time because they’re not commercially useful (not as much as beef breeds), females are usually reared to replenish the herd. For practical reasons, they are placed in individual hutches or pens and fed a commercial milk replacer, either from an artificial teat or from a bucket. People usually think it’s cute how calves are eager for the bucket and how they’ll enthusiastically lick your hands or each other but it’s only a sign of severe distress and frustration at the absence of their mother.
Calves are kept like that for up to eight weeks (which is legal and normal practice), often trying to reach to each other for comfort and bellowing for their mothers. Predictably, young calves are very vulnerable and susceptible to disease. Artificial food together with stress only makes this worse and scours (severe diarrhoea), caused by a low-quality or incorrectly prepared milk replacer or an infection, is too much for the fragile young body to deal with and many calves die within the first weeks of their life.
As if the above wasn’t enough, most calves are also disbudded to prevent the growth of horns, either by burning out the horn bud with a hot iron or a chemical paste. And because female calves are often born with a small surplus teat on the udder which wouldn’t fit in the milking machine, it is permitted to cut these off using scissors and without anaesthetic when they’re very young.
All this so we can have a glass of milk or a block of cheese? Do we want them so badly we’re happy to torture baby animals like that? Let’s see what happens next – maybe it gets better as they get older?
When calves are eight weeks old, they have to be group housed. That means several calves of similar age are put in a small pen together so they can socialise. Although this provides a shred more comfort, it also increases the risk of diseases such as pneumonia spreading and the calves are still extremely restricted in their movement, never leaving the pen.
As they grow up, they eventually get moved into the adult housing – a big hall with stalls. And although they might be in the middle of a beautiful countryside and see it from a distance all their life, they may never actually leave the confinement of the farm until they’re sold or sent off to a slaughterhouse.
Not a laughing cow in sight! We should wean ourselves already, there’s nothing natural or essential about interspecies breastfeeding.
For more information on the dairy industry and your health without milk go to www.whitelies.org.uk