News Blog Articles Calf tests do nothing to promote good welfare
Calf tests do nothing to promote good welfare

Calf tests do nothing to promote good welfare

December 21st, 2016

In the article ‘Kiwi research explores emotions in farm animals’ (New Zealand Herald, Monday 19 December 2016), scientist Gosia Zobel  discusses her work conducting trials into the emotional state of dairy  calves, commenting on one test that: “The level of anticipation at the  sight of the flashing light, and the interaction with the play items,  was much greater than expected by the researchers.”

Without having seen the full peer-reviewed  publication, it seems that this finding should not be surprising given  the usually barren test environments. Calves are normally separated from their mother in the first few days of their life. The  calves may not have had an opportunity to interact with other calves,  and most probably did not have any contact with their mother during  study duration. When left with their mother, calves wean after several  months.

In these so-called ‘preference testing’ scenarios, researchers  sometimes find that animals behave differently to what they expect. The  testing environments are frequently standardised, bearing so little  resemblance to animals’ natural environments that they do not invite  natural behaviour.

While calves are precocial animals, born with their eyes open, a good  coat and the ability to walk within hours, they still need their  mothers. They need to be able to follow on foot quickly, as cattle have  evolved to be able to stay away from predators. This ability does not  make young calves independent and able to fend for themselves. They  would normally wean naturally after a few months or more if they had not  already been taken away from their mothers a few days after birth.

In the tests the calves were provided with different objects to  interact with, such as a rope. Giving calves a choice of different floor  materials, or an object they can manipulate with their mouth, in the  absence of being able to suckle naturally from their mother’s teats, is  not enough for calf well-being. Most young animals are inquisitive, and  given little or no environmental or social stimulation, these calves  clearly anticipate any slightly positive features to keep them busy.  These indicators of positive interest do not translate into meaningful  and lasting changes promoting good welfare in the intensive,  profit-driven dairy industry.


Calves are just like other young animals who need their mothers. The  modern dairy industry does not adequately respect calves’ or cows’  needs, and is inherently cruel to both. Taking calves away just days  after birth just so people can drink the milk that is supposed to help  develop and grow the calf, is inhumane and unnecessary. Cows frequently  suffer from malnutrition. They can barely keep up with the demand for  calories needed to produce such unnatural amounts of milk, and many go  hungry. A substantial number of cows suffer from lameness or mastitis or  other diseases, and they clearly suffer when their calves are taken  away shortly after birth. Cows are social beings, who develop  friendships, but the dairy industry just treats them as numbers.

The dairy industry has experienced continued controversy over the  treatment of animals in the last couple of years. But rather than  seeking to make minor improvements, we need to stop treating animals as  production units, and start recognising them as sentient beings. All  animals have an interest in staying alive, keeping away from danger and  exploitation, and seeking positive emotional states in natural  environmental settings.

On a personal level, cutting out meat and dairy from your diet will  greatly help hundreds of animals in your lifetime. For an introduction  to our 100% Vegetarian challenge, fully supported with tips, recipes and  useful links, please visit

Jasmijn de Boo, SAFE CEO and animal welfare scientist.


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