Sarah Taylor

Sarah Taylor

Posted June 5, 2013

Published in Animals

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Dairy Cows and Their Calves: When Mother is Separated From Baby

Read More: dairy, dairy cows, vegan

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My new book, Vegetarian to Vegan, is going through the publishing process now.  I thought I might give you all a taste of some of the information in the book by blogging excerpts from it over the next several weeks. 

I wrote Vegetarian to Vegan because while many authors have written very compelling books about the horrors of slaughterhouses, how smart cows, pigs and chickens are, and how bad meat and dairy are for both our health and our environment, no one has ever focused in-depth on the health, animal rights and environmental issues of just the dairy and egg industries – the two industries that vegetarians support, but vegans do not.  And it turns out that there is a lot you might want to know.

For example, when I began researching dairy cows, I found that they suffer from very high rates of Johne’s disease, mastitis, bovine leukemia, milk fever and other adverse effects that happen occur in dairy cows, but not usually in beef cows.  Similarly, I found statistics in medical journals about eggs, such as that the Physician’s Health Study found that there was a 23% increase in the risk of death in people who ate just one egg a day.[1]  In fact, there was a lot of information that I had never come across about the diary and egg industries when I really started diving deep into veterinarian journals, medical journals and environmental reports. 

Here is an excerpt from the section on dairy cows and their calves, and what happens when a calf is born and separated from it’s mother…


On a factory farm, cow’s milk is not intended for baby cows – it’s intended for humans.  Therefore, baby calves are not allowed to nurse.  They are taken from their mothers as soon as two hours after birth, and are either fed a commercial milk replacer that is made from dried milk powder, or they are fed milk that has been deemed unfit for human consumption.

Besides keeping the milk for humans to consume, there is another reason why baby calves are taken from their mothers so quickly:  According to the Journal of Dairy Science, “Calves left with cows for more than 2 hours [of birth] had a higher risk for infection, possibly due to exposure to large amounts of infectious agents in the maternity pen.”[2]  Letting the calf stay with its mother for any significant period of time increases risk for Cryptosporidium infection[3] and respiratory disease, which increases calves’ risk of death by six times.[4]  Basically, these authors are saying that the “maternity wards” at the dairy factories are so filthy that the calves’ lives are at risk if they hang around for more than a couple of hours.

Sadly, just like human mothers bond tightly with their newborn babies, so do cows bond with their calves.  Mother cows have been reported to bellow for many hours or even days after her calf is taken from her.  Author Oliver Sacks, MD discusses a visit that he and Temple Grandin made to a dairy farm: When they arrived, they heard many cows bellowing, causing a very loud and unnerving sound.  Temple commented, “They must have separated the calves from the cows this morning,” and indeed, that was exactly the case.[5]  Similarly, John Avizienius, a senior scientific officer at the Farm Animal Department at the RSPCA in Britain, discusses one particular cow that suffered great emotional distress over the separation from her calf:  She bellowed for hours, and even after six weeks would hover at the pen door where she had last seen her calf.[6] 

In a cruel twist of fate, it’s been shown in mammals that multiparous females (those giving birth for the second time or more) have higher levels of oxytocin than primiparous females (those giving birth for the first time.)[7]  This means that with each subsequent birth, a mother cow presumably grows more and more bonded to her calves, and it likely becomes more and more emotionally traumatizing for the cow each time a baby calf is taken from her. 

Just as the mother forms an immediate bond with her calf, the newborn calf also has an immediate attachment to his or her mother, and is healthier the longer it gets to bond with its mother. Calves allowed to remain with their mothers for up to 14 days showed weight gains at three times the rate of calves taken within 1-2 days, and they also showed signs of better searching behaviors and better social relationships with other calves.[8]  But as we’ve seen, baby calves are taken away within hours due to both the risk of infection from their filthy conditions, as well as the desire for the farmers to keep the mother’s milk for humans – not calves – so they can make a profit.

It has been shown that baby calves experience emotional distress when they are separated from their mothers.  Unbelievably, they have been known to try to bond with the factory farm workers, even trying to suckle the fingers of the worker who is sending them off to slaughter. 

Female calves will be raised to become dairy cows like their mothers, and the male calves will go to veal farms where they will be slaughtered for their tender meat.


[1] Djousse L, Gaziano JM. Egg consumption in relation to cardiovascular disease and mortality: the Physicians' Health Study. Am J Clin Nutr 2008;87:964-969.

[2] Gulliksen, S.M., et al.  (2009)  Calf mortality in Norwegian dairy herds.  J Dairy Sci, 92, 2782-2795.

[3] Faubert, G.M. & Litvinsky, Y.  (2000)  Ntaural transmission of Cryptosporidium parvum between dams and calves on a dairy farm.  J Parasitol, 86, 495-500

[4] Gulliksen, S.M., et al.  (2009)  Calf mortality in Norwegian dairy herds.  J Dairy Sci, 92, 2782-2795.

[5] Dasa, S.  Cows are Cool.  Soul Science University Press, 2009. Pg 38.

[6] Dasa, S.  Cows are Cool.  Soul Science University Press, 2009. Pg 39.

[7] Levy, F., K. M. Kendrick, J. A. Goode, R. Guevara-Guzman and E. B. Keverne. 1995. Oxytocin and vasopressin release in the olfactory bulb of parturient ewes: Changes with maternal experience and effects on acetylcholine, gamma-aminobutyric acid, glutamate and noradrenaline release. Brain Res. 669(2):197-206.

[8] Flower FC, Weary DM - Institute of Ecology and Resource Management, School of Agriculture, Edinburgh, UK. "Effects of early separation on the dairy cow and calf: 2. Separation at 1 day and 2 weeks after birth.". Retrieved 2009-05-29.