Dairy bull calves being killed with 'lump hammers' and plastic bags' claims former TD

War of words erupts at ICMSA's agm during debate on calf welfare issue

Ned O'Keeffe pictured at the ICMSA AGM in Limerick.
Pic: Don Moloney
Ned O'Keeffe pictured at the ICMSA AGM in Limerick. Pic: Don Moloney

Claire Fox and Martin Ryan

Dairy bull calves are being killed with plastic bags and lump hammers by farmers looking to avoid the costs of rearing the unwanted animals, a former TD has claimed.

Ned O'Keeffe, the former Cork East Fianna Fail TD who is a pig and dairy farmer near Mitchelstown in Co Cork, made the comments during a debate on calf welfare at the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers (ICMSA) AGM in Limerick.

"I make it public here that I attended a mart meeting where there were 300 people present and a small, honest-to-goodness farmer milking 80 cows came in and said he had two dead calves in that particular year.

"He went to a knackery and saw 400 calves in a dump and he asked a man in the yard where did they come from and he said 'they saw the lump hammer'," said Mr O'Keeffe (pictured).

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"I heard of a farmer trying to kill male bobby calves with plastic bags. I didn't report them. It's not my job. We all know this is happening. Why should we cover it up? Now is the time to stop it."

Mr O'Keeffe added that there are a small number of people out there trying to damage the dairy industry.

"I want to make the point that this needs to be stamped out and knackeries have a role to play here. Calves aren't being tagged or identified."

Mr O'Keeffe was challenged from the floor by farmers who stated he should have disclosed these claims to ICMSA president Pat McCormack.

Mr McCormack told the Farming Independent that he "rejected outright the idea that disposing of bull calves in this brutal way is either acceptable or widespread".

"We will not permit anyone to convey the impression that this kind of culling is in any way condoned.

"We are, and always have been, committed to the very highest standards of calf welfare and any reputable commentator knows that that's the case. I'm not interested in grabbing headlines or stirring up controversy for the sake of it," said Mr McCormack.

"We've put forward a comprehensive proposal on a dairy calf-to-beef scheme that will return better margins on a lower emissions basis than the systems currently being operated by many farmers.

"That's why I won't have our good name besmirched by attention-grabbing comments when all the evidence is that we always upheld the highest standards."

Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed stated that farmers and industry need to " be conscious of the broader audience that is listening" to commentary about spring calving and the dairy bull calf.

"Sometimes the public commentary about that invites a public view that is not always in line with the facts.

"We have been meeting this challenge year in and year out and I'm confident we can do it again in the spring of 2020."

Labour shortages

Dairy farmers at the event were advised to put emergency management measures in place for the 2020 calving season.

During a debate at the ICMSA AGM farmers were warned that compact calving will create "manpower and staff related issues" on farms.

Farmers were also warned that market restrictions on the export of calves without IBR-free certification could worsen the situation from the beginning of 2021 unless action is taken to establish an IBR free status.

The ICMSA conference was told the lack of an accredited national IBR eradication programme could potentially lead to the collapse of the export market for calves by the early months of 2021.

Vet Conor Geraghty from Veterinary Ireland said that "87pc of herds are infected with IBR which is going to become an issue because the markets don't want calves coming from countries which are not IBR free" and movements will be restricted.

Joe Burke, beef and livestock sector manager with Bord Bia, said calf exports are setting a record in 2019, already at 200,000hd, but he agreed that the absence of Article 9 status for IBR for the country could be a "very serious" issue in 2021.

"The markets that we are supplying will not continue to buy calves from us unless we are IBF free certified, and they will not be allowed to travel through countries which are certified free to get to the markets," he said.

Mr Geraghty proposed the drafting of provision for dealing with an increase in the number of calves which may have to be kept on the farm temporarily for longer than expected at the peak of the calving season.

Live exporter, John Hallissey, called for the immediate introduction of an official eradication programme for IBR to avert a "real crisis" in suplying calves to markets which are an essential and valuable outlet.

"There is opposition to a national programme from some sectors in farming because it is going to cost €2-€3/head for vaccination," he said.

"Many farmers are already privately vaccinating for IBR because of the benefit of health and performance. It does not make sense not to have a national programme."

On welfare issues, Teagasc's Laura Boyle said that male calves have a higher risk of death and disease in the first few weeks of life, and she urged the need to have a "contingency plan" on all dairy farms to deal with emergencies in 2020.

Martin Ryan of Glanbia said the market for calves during the spring does not always coincide with the supply of calves coming off farms.

Mr Ryan said farmers would have to make provision to be able to hold calves on farm for longer due to the glut in spring supplies.

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