Cow calf contact in dairy herds viewed from the perspectives of calves, cows, humans and the farming system. Farmers’ perceptions and experiences related to dam-rearing systems
A common practice in dairy farming is to remove the calf from its mother a few hours after birth. The public debate on the subject has increased, and views on whether the calf should be allowed to stay with its dam for weeks are debated among citizens, farmers, and advisors. The aim of this article is to present, analyse, and discuss experiences and arguments on dam-rearing of calves through interviews with actors, primarily farmers, involved in organic dairy farming in four European countries. The interviews showed that dam-rearing is practiced in a wealth of different systems, and four main points of view should be considered: that of the calf, the cow, the farmer, and the farming system. Three important qualities of cow calf contact systems are described from the animals’ perspective: 1) nutrition, 2) care, and 3) learning. The discussion included ethical considerations referring to the principle of fairness as expressed by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). Well-balanced and managed dam-rearing systems are suggested to contribute significantly to the physiological development and natural behaviour of mother cows and calves. The calves obtain capacities and skills through learning from the dam and others in the system. Major efforts are required when organising suitable calf- and cow-friendly dam-rearing systems, and farmer observations must be more careful because they take place in a group and therefore need to account for complex situations. In doing this, the farmer shows animals respect, and treats them justly as part of the ethical alliance between animals and humans cohabiting on a farm. Farmers’ trust in the capabilities of the animals – such as the cow’s ability to look after the calf and the calf’s capability to live in a complex dairy system – seems to partly break with some of the animal husbandry qualities that are often considered important when taking care of cows and calves in a system with early separation. “Being in control” in new ways than previously was identified as a key for human learning in these systems as a part of the shifting focus when observing animals and spending time with cows and calves differently. In a cow calf contact system, the humans need relies to a higher degree on being able to observe and judge a complex situation than, for example, on giving the calves exactly the same amount of milk of a specific temperature at the same times every day.