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The Myth of Humane Weaning

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I adopted ethical veganism for countless reasons and learning about the treatment of farmed cows and their babies was perhaps one of the most disturbing moments I have ever experienced. It had never occurred to me before, despite being raised by a lactation consultant for crying out loud, that it as mammals, cows need to give birth to calves in order to lactate milk. To me and many others, cows were happy, cows were automated, and cows were eager, excited even, to give. I know better now, that the calves birthed by the cows are seized out from under them in a motion that is compassionless to both the animals and the spirit of motherhood itself. There is no way to justify this kind of cruel attack on bond between mother and child, yet members of the cattle industry think that an intrinsically violent act can somehow be made humane. I work with mothers and infants all the time as a postpartum doula, and find that separating these bonds, no matter the species of creature, is abhorrent.

Last week, The Atlantic ran an article about cattle farmers who are “experimenting” with different methods to wean calves from cows. As an industry standard, dairy cows are separated from their offspring only twenty-four hours after birth. Beef cattle interact and bond with their infants for six months, and then the separation happens all at once. The process is incredibly traumatic, and results in unnatural behaviors such as loud crying and bellowing from mother to child. At Greenfield Highland Beef, farmers have created something called “fenceline” or “nose to nose” weaning, where cows and calves are limited to interacting with each other through through a slatted metal gate at a maximum of four times a day in a practice that is being presented as the “humane” option. It’s dangling a child in front of her mother, and calling it kind. It’s a visit through a prison cell door. The folks running Greenfield report that “…cows and calves do engage in the kind of bellowing that is typical with abrupt weaning, but they’ve found that it’s over sooner.” Instead of putting a timer on the pain, why inflict it in the first place? A study from the University of California tells us that calves produced on beef farms that practice fencelining retain weight and bulk up more effectively than calves who are separated instantly. Indeed, there is financial gain in this thing they call “kinder.”

Another method being used in bigger numbers is “nose flap weaning,” where calves have a piece of plastic inserted into their noses that doesn’t allow their mouths to access the cow’s udders. Some flaps take it even further and come equipped with spikes that cause the cow to reject the mouth of her calf due to being poked and irritated by her own baby’s nose. For the taste of beef, for a picked bone on an empty plate; all of this suffering is glossed over by the word “humane” to satisfy bellies with a lowered sense of guilt.

Freefromharm.org, a spiked nose flap.

The calves birthed on dairy farms are a by-product to the dairy industry. They serve no purpose aside from their eventual slaughter and causing their mothers to lactate. The farmers who produce them, through exploiting the reproductive system of the mothers, have also been experimenting on cows to increase milk production and gain “humane” credentials. The earlier separation occurs, the more milk the farmer can sell. A foster mother may be provided for the calves if they aren’t immediately shipped off and slaughtered for veal, as many male babies are. The foster mother produces milk for her foster calves, and they all share the same eventual fate of irrelevance to the farmer. The Swiss-based Research Institute of Organic Farming published a report on other alternatives, referring to the cruelty of forced weaning as “An Exciting Challenge.” They recommend extended periods of mother-calf bonding, but name the marketing of milk and calves as potential problems with this practice. Again, it comes down to production and money made.

How can we continue to the myth of humane weaning when it is so obviously anything but? Again and again, we throw the word humane around without ever considering its full weight. Humane beef, humane pork, humane chicken, humane slaughter. Humane murder, and humane forced weaning. It’s become arbitrary, and empty, and without any meaning. Instead of praising an industry that we think is trying to be “kinder,” it’s time we take a stance that the use of animals will never, ever be kind.

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