The author is a senior associate editor for Hoard’s Dairyman.

Separating a dairy calf from its dam shortly after birth is a standard farm practice. For years, this has been considered safer and healthier for animals and people. From a research standpoint, though, there isn’t evidence that separation at birth is better for the animals, and many consumers don’t approve of the practice.

Considering today’s dairy facilities and average herd size, maintaining contact between cows and calves may be impossible on many farms. This is certainly not a management change that can happen overnight. However, it has been done.

For Rainton Farm and The Ethical Dairy in southwest Scotland, the transition to a cow-calf housing system took over a decade of planning, preparation, and trial and error. But now, they hope that others can learn from their missteps and perhaps follow in the path they have created.

The most common question

Charles Ellett, dairy manager of The Ethical Dairy, explained that it was indeed the public who drove this decision. “This is an idea that came from our customers,” he shared during the Dairy Cattle Welfare Council’s annual symposium.

The Ethical Dairy is owned by David and Wilma Finlay of Castle Douglas in Scotland. The milk from their organic dairy herd is made into cheese and ice cream.
In addition to the organic dairy herd, the operation, which is owned by David and Wilma Finlay, includes beef cattle, sheep, cheese and ice cream production, and a visitor center. There was a time in the early 2000s when more than 50,000 guests were touring the farm each year.

“The question most often asked was ‘Why do you take calves away from the cows?’” he shared. “It was asked so many times we began to think, ‘Why are we doing this? Is there another way we can meet our customers’ expectations and what they perceive happens on a dairy farm and, at the same time, still be a productive business?’”

Around the same time, the farm’s 6-a-side herringbone parlor was coming to the end of its 30-year lifespan, and an upgrade was needed. While the farm consists of 820 acres, 250 of those are wooded and most of the rest has been turned into permanent pastures because their shallow soils are not suitable for grain production. With little crop land, the Finlays were not looking to expand the herd much beyond the 90 head they were milking at the time.

When considering their options, Ellett said their team asked themselves what the future of dairy housing looked like “We wanted to stand out from the crowd,” he said.

The aging parlor and barn provided them a reason to modify, and they were also able to secure some funding to achieve their goals. With their customers’ wishes in mind, they began looking for other farms that were raising calves with their dams. However, the farms they visited were operating on a very small scale, from 10 to 20 cows.

They went on to develop their own layout, which included a milking parlor, a freestall barn that could house cows and calves, and a slurry tower that acts as an anaerobic digester to supply heat and power to the dairy. Their team had experience in construction; they had built the farm’s visitor center a few years earlier. So, in 2008, they bought a building kit and hired a few contractors for specific elements, but most of the facility was built by their internal crew over the next four years in between the normal daily chores.

A brand new home

“We went from a small, dark, rather damp, not very appealing place for the cows to be to this amazing shed,” Ellett said. “We created ourselves a new home.”

The barn includes 90 stalls on each side, with a calf-exclusive creep area in the middle that runs the full length of the barn. Plastic stall dividers provide more flexibility for cows to choose their own lying position. Automatic scrapers clear manure out of the alleyways, and the stalls are groomed and rebedded twice a day.

After calving, cows spend the first 24 hours with their calf in one of the farm’s 12 maternity pens. Calves are allowed to drink from the dam, and assistance is provided if needed. Ellett said they have found that heifer calves are quicker on their feet and will suckle on their own; the bull calves often need more assistance.

The next day, the cows go to the parlor to be milked for the first time. Then, the cow and calf are moved to a group pen area with other fresh cows and their offspring. Cows stay in the pen a minimum of three days, and sometimes first-lactation cows are kept here an extra day or two after that. Ellett said they do this to monitor the cow and calf and ensure the pair has established a strong bond.

Cows and calves are then moved into the milking barn. They have found that groups of 30 cows are about the right size. If groups are much bigger than that, Ellett said calves and cows have a harder time finding each other. Calves stay with the dams for the first four to five months, and during that time period, cows are milked once a day.

Ellett said that calves tend to stay fairly close to their dam for the first two weeks. As they become more independent, they spend more time in the creep area, where they have access to silage and a pelleted feed.

Milking is done in a 5-a-side tandem parlor. Each cow walks into its own individual stall, and the calf can walk through on the outside alley.

This type of parlor, Ellett said, is absolutely fundamental to making this idea work. “I don’t think you could do this with a traditional herringbone parlor, and certainly not a rotary,” he said. He explained that calves can come with the dam to the holding area, but most quickly learn to stay behind and wait for their dam to return.

“It’s really safe, really simple, and relieves stress of us physically separating calves every time you want to milk,” Ellett said.

The first trial run

The concept seemed fairly simple, and they now had the facilities to do it, but the actual launch of this new management style did not come without setbacks.

Their initial trial run in the new barn took place during the winter of 2012. “The cows loved having the calves there. They seemed very relaxed,” Ellett said.

On the flip side, he said they also seemed confused, as if they were wondering when the calves were going to be taken away, and overall, the adjustment was stressful for the cows and humans. “Everyone was trying to find their way all the time,” he said.

It also created some management challenges. One issue was that cows were not showing estrus, and the farm staff was struggling to get cows pregnant.

Cows were also holding back milk and components to feed their calves. Ellett said cows with full udders would come into the parlor but only milk out a small proportion. Butterfat levels went from 5.4% to 2.1%. “The solids just weren’t there,” Ellett said. “They were holding cream back for the calves all of the time.”

To try to combat these issues, adjustments were made often, which just compounded the problem. “We were changing things quite frequently,” he said. This added more disruption and more stress.

One day, David, the farm’s owner, walked into the barn and said, “Stop. We’ve got to rethink what we are doing here.” Four months into this new way of life, they were getting about one-fifth of the milk production they used to get daily, and hardly any cows were back in calf.

Cows on the farm are calved in semi-annually, either from October to December or April to May. As they approached their next calving period, they went back to removing calves at birth and began to re-evaluate the system.

Let’s try this again

The Finlays were not giving up on the concept; they just needed to go back to the drawing board. A few years later, in 2016, they put their plans into motion once again — this time, with experience gained from lessons learned the first time.

To improve milk letdown, Ellett said they learned to keep the routine consistent. “As they get more used to the system, they let down more milk,” he shared. “What they actually wanted was just a normal routine that was exactly the same time every day.”

To stimulate estrus, they started to use a teaser bull. Ellett said his presence in the barn really stimulates heats and allows the staff to find and breed cows in a more timely fashion.

Crossbreeding has also helped improve the herd’s reproduction. With Swedish Red genetics at the base, cows were crossed with Montbeliardes for frame and capacity and now Holsteins for more milk.

“It is a very fertile three-way cross,” Ellett said. He reported that 65% of cows will get pregnant after the first insemination.

Colostrum feeding was another area that needed more attention. Initially, they would ensure that newborn calves were sucking from the dam but were not feeding supplemental colostrum. Once they started feeding calves 4 liters of colostrum with an esophageal feeder, calf health problems reduced greatly. “Colostrum management made a big difference,” he said.

Pneumonia continued to be a major issue for young stock, though. Initially they thought it was related to cows and calves sharing the same airspace, but with a big and airy barn, that didn’t seem likely.

About a year ago, they discovered the problem was initiating from salmonella being transferred from the cows to the calves. The salmonella caused scours, which then turned into pneumonia. They started vaccinating the cows 12 months ago, and Ellett said they have had a dramatic reduction in the number of pneumonia cases in calves since.

Easing the transition

They work hard to avoid stressful moments in the calf’s life, especially at weaning. “By keeping the calf with the cow, we have created this bond between them,” Ellett said. “We now have to get the weaning done without creating that stress.”

At first, they used a more abrupt weaning process, but Ellett said the stress for cows and calves was very intense. So, they made fundamental changes to their weaning protocols. Now, after six weeks, calves are isolated in the creep area at night. Cows and calves still have physical contact and remain in each other’s visible sight, but it starts the gentle weaning process. It also gets the farm a better return from morning milking.

“Our aim has always been to minimize stress at all times,” Ellett explained. “Change has to be gradual, has to be slow, and you can’t change too many things at once. Not only is it harder to discover where the problem has come from, but it confuses the cow. The more you can keep a normal routine, the better,” he shared.

As weaning approaches, quiet weaning tabs are placed on the calves for eight or nine days to prevent them from drinking from the dam. At this point and throughout the rest of lactation, cows are milked twice a day. The cows and calves still have physical contact during this time frame, but cows start getting used to the idea that they will be leaving their milk in the parlor.

With a grass-based, no grain diet, they aim for milk production around 10,000 pounds (4,500 liters) annually per cow. Once the calves are weaned, Ellett said a more normal pattern in production returns. “The milk is always there, she just wasn’t willing to give it to us. That’s the tradeoff we have to get used to,” he explained. Today, they are milking 120 cows.

Although this system puts less milk in the bulk tank, Ellett said you can clearly see the benefits in the calves. They grow faster, and bull calves raised as steers finish sooner, saving feed and improving their sale value. This helps offset the reduction in income from milk.

A lot to learn

The Ethical Farm built this model from the ground up, and Ellett said mistakes were made. “We all learned,” he said.

He said one key to making a farm like this work is the staff. “David always says finding the right people for this system is really important,” Ellett said. “Make sure you have the right people who want to work for the same objectives.”

Ellett has worked at larger dairies with more conventional housing, but it wasn’t for him. As they have worked out the kinks, he finds this cow-calf system to be more relaxing and less labor intensive.

Looking forward, they will work to streamline the system even more. Through observations, they have noticed that cows spend a lot more time grooming and nursing bull calves compared to heifers. Since cows seem to be holding back more milk for bull calves, they are going to start breeding with sexed semen to get more replacements and, hopefully, put more milk in the tank during that five-month period when the calf is with the cow.

They also hope to utilize all the milk produced on the farm in their own processing plant, selling it as fluid milk, cheese, or ice cream. The dairy has become well known as the cow-calf farm, their products are marketed as such, and they plan to keep it that way.

“We are 100% committed to the cow and calf system,” Ellett said. “We have now proven to ourselves that it can work, and hopefully we are showing others that you can do it, too, without all the stress we went through.”

The customer may not always be right, but for Ellett and the Finlays, they decided to explore an opportunity to address the cow-calf separation concern. In the process, they learned a lot and found a system that makes them as content as their cows and calves.