Improving the Lives of Calves Raised for Veal

With over nine million dairy cows in the United States, and with an estimated 88 percent of cows giving birth every year, it seems safe to conclude that at least four million male dairy calves are born every year on U.S. dairy farms. Because male dairy calves are not used in milk production and few dairy farmers raise them for beef, most male calves are considered "surplus" and are abruptly separated from their mothers and the farm of their birth. They may be transported and sold directly for slaughter or to feedlots specializing in dairy beef rearing. Others may be sold to formula-fed veal factories where they live for four months, tightly confined in body-sized, individual crates. Alternatively, they may be shipped to auction houses where buyers from the specialized veal factories bid for them. In any case, their welfare is extremely poor.

Young calves are very sensitive to pathogens. Colostrum in the mother's milk carries the maternal antibodies. At the specialized veal factory, the calves are exposed to calves from other farms. The microorganisms they encounter in their new environments and on route are different from the ones for which their mothers' milk carried immunity. Nearly all of the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in the dairy industry is used to control respiratory and other diseases in veal calves. Routine non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in food animals has been shown to reduce the effectiveness of antibiotics in treating disease.

The farther a calf is taken from the environment of his mother, the less his mother's colostrum can protect him from disease. The calf raised on the farm of birth is at an advantage over calves that are removed from the farm. Therefore, it is important for calf welfare to create incentives for dairy farmers to raise male calves on the farm.

Last winter, Tera Johnson, CEO of White Clover Dairy, a Wisconsin dairy feeds processor, approached AWI about cooperating on an experimental project to help create economic incentives for certain Wisconsin farmers to raise male dairy calves on their farms under conditions approved by AWI. Wisconsin has approximately 16,000 dairy farmers, around a quarter of which operate grazing systems. Rather than being confined on cement or dirt lots and barns, their cows are permitted to live outside on carefully managed pastures, with access to bedded shelters in winter. Many of these dairy "graziers" have developed welfare-friendly methods of raising dairy heifers. Routinely, however, they still sell the young male calves shortly after birth.

Johnson reasoned that because farmers who graze their cattle do not have the heavy capital investment in buildings and equipment that dairy factory operators have, their production systems are more flexible, and it would be easier to integrate into them a new enterprise of rearing male calves.

In the White Clover project, calves on several farms are raised under three different experimental protocols: 1) with their mothers on pasture until they are sold, or 2) separated after the colostrum period and raised in social groups with other calves. The separated calves are fed either 3a) milk formula or 3b) fresh milk. Unlike formula-fed calves in veal factories, all calves in the project have space to frolic and access to grass or hay for fiber and to straw-bedded shelters. Calves have a strong need to suck, and a frequent industry criticism of keeping calves in groups is that they suck on each other. In this project, special buckets attached to the sides of the pens of calves in groups are used to feed the calves. The buckets have specially designed rubber teats that satisfy the calves' instinct to suck, even when there is no milk in the buckets.

Because most U.S. animal scientists specializing in calf nutrition do so from the formula-fed veal perspective, Johnson and colleagues have been working with scientists in the Netherlands to formulate quality diets for the male calves that are more in keeping with the calves' natural digestive needs.

The project is in the process of developing a customer base for these young male calves so that more restaurants and chefs will choose to purchase meat from calves raised in high welfare environments. Preliminary market tests at upscale restaurants and with chefs ethically committed to purchasing food that comes from humane, sustainable sources have indicated that the chefs are pleased with the results of their decisions to support the project's aims, and they welcome the opportunity to choose meat from calves raised with humane husbandry.

AWI is grateful to contribute its expertise and guidance to this project to improve the conditions under which male dairy calves are raised.

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