Farm Sanctuary President and Co-founder Gene Baur found Safran in a pen with other calves at a dairy farm on the day the little calf was born.
Massive dairy operations
Recently, Gene visited Southern California’s San Bernardino County to witness and document the factory farming industry in the region. The area is home to the Hallmark slaughterhouse, which specializes in killing “spent” dairy cows. Gene photographed and videotaped abuse there in the 1990s, and that documentation led to the enactment of state and federal policies to outlaw the mistreatment of “downed” cows (animals too sick even to stand). In 2008, new revelations of flagrant cruelty at the facility prompted the largest beef recall in U.S. history.
San Bernardino County is the site of massive dairy operations, which confine thousands of cows in feedlot-like conditions. At its peak in the 1970s, it was the most intensive dairy-producing region in the world. Urbanization in Los Angeles County drove dairy farmers to the area en mass, spurring the formation of the San Bernardino Dairy Preserve. Lest the word “preserve” mislead: This is no bucolic haven of green pastures where placid herds of cattle roamed; it has been a crucible for industrial animal agribusiness. San Bernardino’s hot, dry climate prompted the development of “dry lot” dairies, where huge numbers of cows are concentrated in barren paddocks. All feed is purchased and brought to the cows who are never able to graze on pasture. The land and water has been polluted by the enormous quantities of waste produced by these CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations).
Industrial dairy production is a relentless cycle of impregnation and birth and re-impregnation for cows. They must give birth to begin lactating, and, in modern dairies, they have a calf every year. Their babies are taken from them immediately so that the milk can be sold. In many dairy-producing areas, female calves are raised separately from their mothers but on the same or a nearby farm. These calves will replace their exhausted predecessors who are deemed “spent” (that is, no longer profitable as milk producers) and sent to slaughter at about four or five years of age. Meanwhile, male calves are typically taken to auction just after birth and sold for the production of veal or beef.
In California’s intensive dairy regions, so many calves are born that a “calf-ranch” industry has developed. Every day, calves are picked up from dairies and transported to these ranches, where they are confined in wooden crates only slightly larger than those used in veal production. For these vulnerable, frightened newborns, the calf ranch is a bleak prelude to a miserable fattening period on a feedlot or to a few grueling years in dairy production — and, in either case, to a violent, premature death. Safran was slated to be sent to a calf ranch the day after he was born. Instead, he was rescued, and came to our Southern California Shelter.
Unsurprisingly, Safran arrived weak and hungry. Dairy calves commonly are denied the chance to nurse even once from their mothers. They are deprived not only of nutrition and comfort but also of the essential antibodies that they can receive only from the colostrum-rich milk that a mother cow produces during the first 24 hours after she gives birth. Calves who do not receive colostrum are extremely vulnerable to a slew of immune disorders. Not knowing whether Safran managed to nurse during his first few hours of life, caregivers offered him colostrum as soon as he arrived, and he eagerly drank it all. They also immediately began iodine treatment of Safran’s umbilicus, which was exposed and susceptible to life-threatening bacteria.
Safran had a hearty appetite and received a positive evaluation from our vet on his arrival, but, a few hours later, he refused his bottle. Round-the-clock nutrition is crucial for young calves, so we were concerned. We asked our vet to examine Safran again, and we began our vigil. Staff watched the calf closely as they administered tube feedings, and the shelter’s live-in caregiver slept in Safran’s stall at night, attempting to feed him every two hours. Finally, after days of anxious monitoring from his caregivers, Safran suddenly took to his bottle voraciously. He’s been a meal-time champ ever since.
Calves form deep bonds with their mothers and siblings, and these sources of emotional sustenance can be critical to their physical well-being. With this in mind, Safran’s caregivers are with him as much as possible, providing not only food and health care but also comfort and a sense of family. Through their support, Safran is now beginning to thrive. He now feeds from a bucket not a bottle, and he’s growing fast. His long legs hint at the big steer he will become (likely close to 3,000 pounds and seven feet tall!), and his youthful playfulness is a prologue to the joy that will be his for the rest of his days.