May 21, 2017

Belated Mother’s Day Musings

Last weekend while celebrating Mother’s Day, we at Farmaste Animal Sanctuary couldn’t help but think about the lives of non-human mothers in the agricultural industry. While industry practices contribute to the suffering of all farmed animals, they unfortunately lead to particularly dreadful lives for mothers. One striking example is that of dairy cows.  As with all mammals, dairy cows only lactate following a pregnancy. Thus, in order to produce milk, dairy cows must be impregnated. Following insemination and a nine-month pregnancy, their calf is immediately taken from them (to be used as a dairy cow or sold into the meat industry) and the milk that was meant for their baby is appropriated for our use. While continuing to be milked, often through painful mastitis (an udder infection), they are re-inseminated – typically within three months of birth to ensure continuous milk production. Most dairy cows give birth to three to six offspring before being slaughtered when their milk production decreases or their bodies can no longer handle back-to-back pregnancies. This usually occurs between four and six years of age.

Photo Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals 

One of the joys of a farm sanctuary is the unique opportunity to see cows mothering their young. Given the chance, cows are protective and dedicated mothers.  Shortly after giving birth, they hide their calves in high grass to shield them from predators; returning often to nurse and check in on their safety. If the calf moves from its hiding place (or is taken by a farmer), the mother cow will bellow loudly and search endlessly for her calf. To see an example of this behavior (and a happy outcome!), watch the story of Maybelle at the Gentle Barn.

Once a calf is a bit older, mothering duties are often shared by the herd. In fact, cows use a kind of “day care” system in which one or two cows will care for the young members of the herd under a shady tree while the others go out to pasture to graze. On occasion, cows have also been known to adopt orphaned calves, caring for and feeding them just as they would their own. Check out the beautiful story of Liz, Cashew, & Jerome at Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York (


This strong bond between mother and baby is not unique to cows – or even to mammals! In fact, the idiom “mother hen” came from chickens’ strong maternal behaviors. Research has shown that these doting hens use specific vocalizations to warn their chicks of danger – with different clucks for ground and aerial predators. Further, in studies hens have been found to react more strongly to watching their chicks exposed to a slightly stressful (but not harmful) puff of air than being exposure to the same puff of air themselves. In other words, seeing their chicks subjected to potential harm or discomfort was worse than having to go through it themselves.
The agricultural industry views the maternal instincts of farmed animals either as a nuisance – something that threatens productivity – or as something to be exploited to increase production. We couldn’t disagree more. To us, it is one more example that farmed animals are someone, not something. We can’t wait to celebrate these amazing mothers at Farmaste next Mother’s Day!