‘I would do anything for love’ (…like break down a wooden fence)
Early morning last week, Wilhelm and I walked over to (farm owner) Henric’s to drink our morning coffee before milking the cows only to be unexpectedly rushed through our ritualistic ‘caffeination sensation’ because of a pair of disgruntled mothers. Looking out the window, mid-coffee, we saw two cows feeding outside… What didn’t make any sense about this visual from our perch by the windowsill was that there was supposed to be a fairly sturdy wooden gate between where these two cows were placed the night before and where they were feeding at that very moment. After further inspection, here’s what remained of that sturdy wooden gate (now reinforced by iron).
“I Would do Anything For Love“
So, two questions you may or may not be asking yourself, 1) why did they so violently break down the fence? And 2) where were all the other cows? (If you don’t hangout with cows as much as I do, you may not know the finer details… So here they are,
- this particular farm has over 50 cows and
- cows are herding animals, they like to stick together and rarely separate from the herd. But these two cows were definitely separated and they seemed to be on a mission).
Luckily (!), these questions can be answered as one. One such rare time (though, not so rare to a cow farmer) a cow might separate from the herd is when they are going through ‘cow motherhood.’
(notice the protective glance from Mamma Mooo)
As I said in an earlier post, cow mammas will often separate from the herd to give birth to their calves in a forest or field, often making it difficult for the farmer and potentially dangerous for the calf (depending on the prevalence in nearby predators: i.e. wolves, etc.). However, the other time a cow might separate from the herd is when she is in search of her calve(s). Hence, our broken wooden fence.
Most farmers will tell you from experience, the more a cow and her calf spend time together the more an unbreakable bond between them is formed (Henric said that if they spent 5-6 weeks together it was nearly impossible to separate them)*. The mammas who broke down the fence were with their calves for no more than four days before they were separated from each other (which is, by some, considered an excessive amount of time together).
For milking cows, who produce more than enough milk for both their calf and an extra milking, and for milking farmers, who have to cope with and juggle the socio-economic-ecological repercussions of a potentially volatile cow-calf separation anxiety relationship (which kind of goes hand-in-hand with meeting consumer milk demands in running a milk business), less time spent together is better (assuming a milk farmer wants to continue selling milk). The first 24 hours are legally and, more pertinent to the calf’s development, biophysically important to spend together. This has a lot to do with the milk that is produced in the first 24 hours called colostrum.
If you’re not familiar with colostrum (you really ought to wiki it (here’s a link)) it’s the super highly nutritious and immunity-system-boosting milk that is produced by every mammal within the first 24 hours (or more). Beyond the drastically different coloring from what most would consider ‘normal’ looking whole milk (it’s more of a dark, thick yellow), it’s loaded with immunoglobulins that aid the calves (and all other mammals) develop a strong immune system directly after birth.
New Friends and Family Reunions
As you can see from the picture below, the good news (speaking only for the lucky calves at Dyestad) is that the calves are not placed in an anti-social environment! (Wilhelm and I giving them new bedding and introducing new friends)
The mothers will often search for their calves for a while but, depending on how much time they’ve spent together before separation, will eventually give up searching (even though, whether they recognize each other or not, they do get to see each other twice a day during milking). The calves are still fed milk but only from a fake nipple.
After these calves reach a certain age (usually around 26 weeks) their diet has (hopefully) shifted from milk to grass fodder. At this point, they’re introduced first into a ‘teenager herd’ and, once they become mothers, finally back into the milking herd. The aim of course, is to make sure they’re eating grass side-by-side with their mothers and not drinking their mother’s milk, milk that will hopefully be making its way to local consumers (though I’ve seen some reintroduced calves pull a reversal and drink all their mother’s milk while farmers are left wondering where did all the milk go because the milk machine is pumping dry).
Understandably, this separation of cow and calf is painful to watch and hear while the mother cow is constantly searching and calling for her calf. It does seem to blow over after some time but it’s one of the paradoxes to our current food system that many of us never hear, see or experience.
*Beef rearing calves are given different treatment than milking cows. On organic farms, they often remain with their mothers until they are 1) decidedly ready to be slaughtered or, more often, 2) when another calf from the same mother comes into being.