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For the mothers who give us our milk

By George Seymour - posted Friday, 6 May 2011

Mothers' Day this Sunday celebrates the relationship between mother and child. Countries and cultures throughout the world mark the relationship with a day to celebrate it. A day that quite rightly recognises the biological and cultural centrality of the relationship.

Is it possible that we can revere and celebrate this fundamental relationship at the same time as degrading, abusing and desecrating it?

The mothering relationship is of course not unique to humans. The strong bond between mother and child can be found, if we care to look, in most - if not all - mammals.


Cows, like humans and other mammals, can only produce baby milk after they have given birth. For cows the milking period lasts for approximately six months. With the milk production in decline the cow is impregnated again, meaning that a dairy cow has a calf about once a year.

The cow milk sold by the litre is not surplus to requirements. It is not the milk left over after the baby is contented. It is everything. The mother has had her baby taken from her, usually within 12-24 hours of birth.

The female calves are usually raised to replace their mothers as milking cows. However, the newborn male calves, referred to by the industry as 'non-replacement calves' or 'bobby calves', are slaughtered.

The term 'bobby calves' means newborn calves that are less than two weeks old and not with their mothers. They are of course not with their mothers because they have been taken from them. Some will be sent off for veal production. The great majority are slaughtered within a week of birth.

About 800,000 male bobby calves are born to dairy cows in Australia each year.

The separation is not easy for the mother or the child. When calves are removed, mother cows will frantically bellow for the offspring whom they will never see again. Separated calves appear frightened and bewildered. Dr Michael Klaper describes a scene from his youth:


"The very saddest sound in all my memory was burned into my awareness at age five on my uncle's dairy farm in Wisconsin. A cow had given birth to a beautiful male calf. The mother was allowed to nurse her calf but for a single night. On the second day after birth, my uncle took the calf from the mother and placed him in the veal pen in the barn - only ten yards away, in plain view of the mother. The mother cow could see her infant, smell him, hear him, but could not touch him, comfort him, or nurse him. The heartrending bellows that she poured forth - minute after minute, hour after hour, for five long days - were excruciating to listen to. They are the most poignant and painful auditory memories I carry in my brain."

So long as humans believe that they have more right to a mother's milk than her own child such torment will continue. For the individual mother she will suffer the pain annually as her calves are taken. The bobby calves will also suffer but in different ways.

These living creatures are considered waste products of the milk industry. Unable to produce milk like their mothers, and not as profitable for raising for beef as other types of cows, they are quickly disposed of. But the mother, having given birth to her child, produces the milk in the coming months which is taken for human consumption.

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About the Author

George Seymour is a solicitor and local government councillor. He is the President of Youthcare Hervey Bay, a homeless shelter providing support to young people on the Fraser Coast, Queensland.

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