Research Article: American and German attitudes towards cow-calf separation on dairy farms

Date Published: March 16, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Gesa Busch, Daniel M. Weary, Achim Spiller, Marina A. G. von Keyserlingk, I Anna S Olsson.


Public concerns regarding the quality of life of farm animals are often focused on specific practices such as separating the cow and calf immediately after birth. The available scientific literature provides some evidence in support of this practice (including reduced acute responses to separation when it does occur), as well as evidence of disadvantages (such as increased risk of uterine disease in cows). The aim of this study is to systematically examine public views around this practice. Specifically, this study analyzes the views of American and German citizens to separation of cow and calf at birth using a quantitative segmentation approach. Although the majority of participants opposed early separation, a small proportion of our sample supported the practice. According to participants’ preference for early and later separation and their evaluation of different arguments for both practices, three clusters were identified. US participants were more likely to support early separation compared to German participants. The arguments presented for and against both practices caused different reactions in the three clusters, but did not appear to sway the opinions of most participants. The results show considerable opposition to the practice of early separation in large parts of the sample and suggest that the dairy industry should consider approaches to address this concern.

Partial Text

In recent years there has been increasing public concern regarding the quality of life of farm animals [1,2,3]. The majority of work to date addressing citizens’ evaluation of contentious farming practices has taken place in Europe but this type of work is now gaining traction in North America [4,5]. Primary public concerns are in relation to restriction of movement (e.g. sows in gestation stalls [6]; laying hens in cages [7]), painful procedures (e.g. dehorning of dairy calves [8] and castration of piglets [9]) or lack of natural behavior (e.g. dairy cows access to pasture [10]). Some people working within agriculture have argued that these criticisms are unwarranted given that the public lacks knowledge of farming practices; from this perspective, criticisms will wane if the public is educated about agricultural production methods and the context of their use [11]. Alternatively, critiques of animal agriculture may reflect a lack of shared values surrounding agricultural production [12], making educational efforts unlikely to succeed in heading off criticisms about husbandry practices [13].

We conducted an online survey with US and German citizens. The Behavioral Research Ethics Board at the University of British Columbia, Canada approved the study. Participants were explicitly informed that all data is treated confidentially and that only anonymous questionnaires were used. Participants had to consent to take part in the study and could withdraw consent at any point by simply closing their Internet browser.

This study used a quantitative approach to provide insights into citizen attitudes towards separation of cow and calf. The online survey was cost and time efficient compared to other data collection methods. Additionally, it helped avoid social desirability biases [56]. Possible disadvantages of this methodology are that the number of indecisive answers is higher in online surveys compared to face-to-face interviews [56]. To mitigate the effects of these challenges, we used 7-point scales instead of 5-point scales, as the potential for using the mid-point category decreases when there are more scale steps [57]. Demographics such as sex and region were close to census data but both the U.S. and German samples were younger compared to the original populations. Also, given that we used a convenience sample, our results should not be considered representative on a national scale. However, our work brings to light the contentiousness of cow-calf separation and can be used as basis for future quantitative studies that make use of representative samples.

The majority of participants ascribed mental and emotional capabilities to cows and calves, indicating that they perceived these animals to have the capacity to experience pain and distress. Although the common practice of separating cow and calf in dairy farming after birth was not supported by the majority of participants from either the US and Germany we did note a slightly higher proportion of Germans in the cluster that favored keeping cows and calves together with the reserve being true for the cluster that favored separating cow and calf at birth. Most interestingly, the presentation of balanced arguments did not lead to overall shifts in opinions, but we did find that different clusters of participants attended to different arguments likely reflecting value differences. These results contribute to a growing body of literature indicating that educational efforts by the agricultural industries to bring public views in line with industry practices will not be successful.




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