When I was on a placement in Dorset I became really engaged with farming. I visited some of the best farms in the UK and I also saw standard, average and below par ones. I really saw how different each farm is, met some really dedicated farmers and I want to write about what I know and see as a vet student and future vet.
So I’m going to write a series of blogs about different aspects of farming
My goals with farming is that I believe we should concentrate on the quality of production rather than the quantity. Humans don’t need dairy and meat to survive but I enjoy eating it and think as it’s not going to be stopped any time soon we might as well produce it in the best way possible. I want to stop mass production and bring it back to concentrating more on welfare and environment within farming. If we as consumers change our mindset to meat being a treat rather than taking it for advantage then we’d be prepared to pay more for it. Ideally, more money would go back to the farmers and they can spend more money per animal because they’re getting more for each animal and don’t have to produce so many or so much. It isn’t viable to keep producing at the rate we are. But actually if we shared it around better and only ate meat/dairy, say, once or twice a week then everything would be so much more manageable and hopefully fairer and better for all lives involved.
I don’t want producing as much as possible for as cheap as possible (because that’s what consumers are asking for) but producing a good all round product for the amount of money that it costs to do so.
So as a vet,
Welfare is most important to me. We also need to make sure that a farmer’s business is sustainable and viable for their animals sake and our business with the farmer. We have to find ways to make us useful that doesn’t necessarily mean us getting them to spend money on drugs. Especially antibiotics, we’re all driving away from using them. And the best way to avoid antibiotics is to prevent the disease in the first place. We’re being encouraged to actually use our time and knowledge more wisely. Spend an hour or two on a farm, look for areas that are great, look for areas that could improve or could be causing some of the problems that the farmer talks about.
The calf pens made a huge stir a couple of years ago. There were large calves in these pens. I was talking to the vets who knew the farm and they were gobsmacked. Ironically, they said, it was one of the best farms in the area.
The farm in particular had had a recent positive reactor on it’s tb test. This means that the farm was essentially shut down because it has been found to have an animal that may or may not have tb. It is immediately not allowed to remove (sell on) or bring on to the farm any more animals. Therefore these calves were due to be sent to another farm for rearing. But they were no longer allowed to be moved for another 120days at least. (until the next tb test is 100% negative). The farmer wasn’t set up to keep these calves so had to make do. This was the only way he could keep them.
As vets we really like these calf pens. (but yes those calves do look pretty big for those pens) They mean calves can be by themselves while they are really young (and most vulnerable to catching infections) but still see and interact with other calves. Then when they’re older and stronger they can be moved into group pens. Being outside, it means they’re less likely to get respiratory problems and pneumonia which is very common when they’re kept In sheds with little ventilation. The small pen is easy to keep clean and it’s very easy to keep track of each calf and reduce the spread of infection. If one of the calves comes down it’s only a couple that are affected not 25 etc, like you might see being kept in a barn.
A well fed and healthy calf should thrive within this kind of housing. A good bed of hay in each hutch and they’ll easily be warm enough.
A great sign of a happy and healthy calf is when they jump and kick their legs out and run about. And actually, I’ve seen a lot of playful happy calves in these kind of hutches.
When calves get old enough to move into group pens they often go into a group of up to five so that they can still be monitored more easily for any health problems. The older and stronger they get the bigger the group they can go into essentially. I loved the farm photographed below. The calves here have collars on that have a specific chip for each calf. When the calf feels hungry it learns to go to the machine (not pictured) which will read the chip and the machine lets down it’s food quota. This way the farmer can see which animals are eating as expected, which need more and which aren’t eating as much as they should be. Those that aren’t can then be identified and checked out to make sure they aren’t becoming ill.
Each calf also had a temperature gauge on it’s ear ID. the thermometers work by reading the temperature of each calf every hour or so. If a calf’s temperature has been repeatedly too high for six hours or so, the thermometer light beams red which will notify the farmer to keep an eye on the calf. Usually the thermometer gauges the very early stages of an illness, so early in fact that there are no other symptoms and therefore we can’t treat the animal! or we just have to guess! But it’s fantastic for being prepared and being able to monitor each animal.
There is quite a lot of controversy regarding calves and the separation from their mother after birth.
It’s a difficult one and most vets will generally weigh up their knowledge and experience and come up with an opinion. Personally, I don’t think it’s a huge deal taking a calf off of it’s mother within a day or two of being born. Having worked with the animals a lot. A calf will be happy and thrive if it is fed and has interaction with other animals. It’s not very natural I definitely agree but I could argue that it was justifiable. Some people argue that letting a calf stay with it’s mother for a week or two and then taking it away is better. But actually, they have had time to build up a bond, a routine and learned how to deal with the environment that includes each other. To suddenly take that away from the two, i think that could be crueler? But it’s controversial and very debatable. There is also quite a noticable lack of mothering qualities in milking cows. It is believed that they were bred like it. But a beef cow will generally fight off anyone threatening her and her calf yet a dairy cow, though they are generally less temperamental anyway, don’t put up any kind of a fight if you go in and take their calf.
The reason a calf is taken from it’s mother is so that the mother can start producing milk for the milk industry, rather than give it to her calf.
There are a lot of other reasons for why we take a calf away from it’s mother. Disease is a big reason. There are a number of diseases that spread from mother to calf. Milk and faeces are the main way they are spread. Johnes is a great example of a disease and It’s a life long disease in a cow. It’s pretty complicated and long winded but essentially the key to getting rid of the disease is the either kill every animal with it (which is usually high if it is present in the herd and not realistic to kill them all). Or we can stop the next generation from catching it and therefore over a number of years reduce the number of animals in the herd that have it. Stop the calves from catching it and by the time they are adults they are less likely to catch it. but a calf that catches it off it’s mum will carry it for the rest of it’s life and never grow as well or be as productive or healthy.
Another reason why calves are taken from their mothers is to make sure that they get the right amount and quality of milk.
So, yes, we create a lot of the problems by farming intensively that we then have to solve. Because we ask cows to produce so much milk the quality (so the amount of fat and protein) can hugely vary. The amount can also vary too. Because of this we can’t control how much a calf will get. The first drink for a calf is the most important. The colostrum contains a huge amount of fat, protein and antibodies that will help the calf fight disease until it can develop its own. A calf that doesn’t get a decent amount will really struggle to get on in life, it will probably catch more diseases, probably not grow as well and just not thrive or live as long. And therefore to control the health of the calves, when there are so many calves around sometimes it’s easier to take on the full management and know exactly how much a calf is getting by feeding it directly yourself..
Calves for now
I love cows
There will be more to come