The decision by Tesco to ban individual calf pens has been met with dismay by both farmers and industry researchers.
Individual pens are expensive, slow for feeding and sometimes operators have to endure difficult weather conditions. But still 60% of the calves in Europe are reared in them. Do Tesco know more than the rest of us or are they willing to compromise calf welfare to appease the ideologically flawed activists?
Management Practices and Reported Antimicrobial Usage on Conventional and Organic Dairy Farms Journal of Dairy Science Volume 87, Issue 1, January 2004, A.G.Zwald1P.L.Ruegg1J.B.Kaneene2L.D.Warnick3S.J.Wells4C.Fossler4L.W.Halbert2
Organic dairies are more sensitive to management strategies to minimize the risk of infection because they minimize the use of antibiotics. This unavailability of antibiotic treatment to organic dairies for combat of disease magnifies the importance of disease prevention. Thus, it’s not surprising that Zwald et al. (2004) reported that 63% of organic dairies in Wisconsin (20 of 32 herds) housed preweaned calves so that there was no contact with other calves. This compares to only 13% of conventional dairies, who would have easy access to antibiotics, that employed the same strict bio-security measures.
The expected lifespan of an average heifer calf is about 6 year, 2,190 days. A calf is particularly vulnerable for the first 50 days after it is born. Any disease incident during this period will have a disproportionate effect on the lifespan and productivity of a calf. Farmers understand the importance of this pre-weaning period and this is why they will go to so much effort to protect the future of their business during this period.
One of the trials referenced by Tesco in their decision to ban individual pens was carried out in Somerset.
The study allocated 40 female Holstein-Friesian calves to one of three housing groups:
I; 8 calves were housed individually until day 55, P5; 16 were housed individually then paired five days post-birth, P28; 16 were housed individually then paired 28 days post-birth.
The calves were all fed four litres of milk replacer a day until day 21, when this was increased to six litres a day, at a rate of 150g of milk replacer per litre of water.
The trial reported that
” However, in the current study, there was no evidence of health or production differences between calves that were housed in pairs or in individual pens.
Pair rearing or age at pairing did not influence the concentrate intake or weight gain of calves during pen rearing in this study.”
The study did report that individual calves vocalised four times more than the calves paired on day five and twice as much as those paired on day 28. However, this increased vocalisation seems to have been short lived and the report further states that
“Although there was an important distinction between these treatments (P5 V P28) during weaning (P5 calves had a lower stress response to weaning), in the month following regrouping there were no substantial differences in the amount of time calf pairs spent in close association.”
Tesco have referenced a second study in their decision.
“Raising calves in pairs fulfills their need for social contact…..help to develop cognitive skills, social skills and reduce stress-associated reactions.”
Mandel, R., Whay, H. R., Klement, E., & Nicol, C. J. (2016). Environmental enrichment of dairy cows and calves in indoor housing. Journal of Dairy Science, 99(3), 1695-1715.
This study does not make a compelling argument for group pens but suggests that a better alternative would be to leave the calves with the cows.
However, the authors has identified and acknowledged the reasons why farmers around the world chose individual pens for calves.
Farmers, consumers, animal lovers, should be concerned that the decision to ban individual pens has been made with an acceptance that pair/group housing is a “trade off” that increases the risk of disease transmission.
“In farms that practice single housing, calves are reared individually in pens or hutches
for two to eight weeks, mainly with the aim of decreasing the risk of horizontal disease
transmission, but also for helping farmers to monitor calf milk intake and health. The association between group housing and morbidity is affected by the size of the group, with calves kept in large groups (i.e. 7 or more) being at higher risk of disease (Losinger and Heinrichs, 1997, Wells et al., 1997; Svensson et al. 2003, Svensson et al., 2006; Svensson and Liberg, 2006).
A tradeoff between single housing and group housing is pair housing, where physical contact is limited to only one other calf, and the risk of pathogen transmission is limited
Acknowledging the contribution of physical contact to disease transmission, pair housing can be considered a trade-off between individual rearing and group housing, which allows calves to engage in social contact, while limiting disease transmission.”
While the increased risk of disease has been acknowledged, the authors go on to state that the perceived benefits of the “trade-off” may be of limited value as the paired calves will at some point be separated.
“Breaking a social bond between two calves raised together from the
first day of life (and prevented from maternal contact) may prove to be as stressful as breaking the bond between a calf and its dam bonded for a similar amount of time. To our knowledge, these questions have not been addressed yet”
But this author has a better solution
“A more natural rearing method that is little practiced in intensified dairy farms, is to keep calves with their dams following parturition. Dam reared calves are either kept with restricted or full contact with their dam/foster cow and often have access to other calves and adult cows. The length of the rearing period may vary from days to months according to farm management. Calves reared with their dam, compared to calves housed in groups and fed from an automatic feeder, express less abnormal oral behaviour (e.g. cross suckling).”
“ rearing calves with their dam could be an alternative enrichment method to
pair housing that benefits from better public opinion. An alternative option that favors one side of the calf-dam dyad is to raise calves with a foster cow. The latter is suggested to allow calves to satisfy their suckling motivation and engage in social contact with adult cows, and may reduce weaning stress (Kalber and Barth, 2014).”
Animal Health Ireland commissioned a group of experts to provide evidence-based advice on calf health and disease management to Irish farmers, agricultural advisers and veterinary practitioners. They were unambiguous in their findings.
"Individual housing of dairy calves, either indoors or outside, is generally linked with improved calf health. There is long-term recognition of the benefit to dairy calf health of outdoor housing in hutches, especially for the prevention of diarrhoea and respiratory disease . Hutches have been associated with lower morbidity and mortality in dairy calves."
Who is better qualified to give opinions on calf rearing? The scientist or the shopkeeper