Margaret Donnelly: Surplus of unwanted calves is a potential PR nightmare for our dairy sector
Dairy farmers were generally in good form at the Teagasc Moorepark dairy open day, and it’s hardly any surprise. The sun was shining and the event was top notch.
Teagasc welcomed thousands of farmers on site and had enough information and research findings on offer to keep dairy farmers in reading material for the rest of the summer.
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Sustainability was the theme for the day, a reflection of the growing importance of environmental and animal welfare issues.
Dairying will continue to provide the most profitable farming option for many in the industry. But it’s facing challenges that have to be addressed now.
The output from the country’s 17,000 dairy farms and processors makes Ireland the 10th largest dairy exporter in the world, with a strong foothold in the global infant formula sector.
Three of the world’s largest infant nutrition companies manufacture here, and their business is based on our reputation for pasture-based milk production with the highest environmental and animal welfare standards.
However, the sector is at a crossroads and must ensure it doesn’t fall victim to its own success.
The environmental impact of expansion must be top of the agenda at both farm and processor level.
The environmental pressures facing the sector are significant, but the potential for reputational damage is far more likely to occur on animal welfare grounds and could have a far greater impact.
Ireland can’t afford to allow a ‘bobby calf’ problem develop, as happened in New Zealand with male calves from the dairy herd.
There is no evidence of this happening here, but the difficulties experienced this spring by farmers in finding an outlet for Jersey and Jersey-cross bulls — with some being sold for as little as €5/hd — highlighted the seriousness of the situation.
Little wonder then that a number of dairy processors are understood to be looking at introducing policies around what actions farmer suppliers are allowed to take in disposing of surplus bull calves.
There is widespread agreement across the dairy industry that putting down unwanted bull calves is not an option.
However, the issue is being danced around by the industry and all involved in it.
Now is the time to have an open and frank discussion about what to do with surplus dairy male calves, especially those with Jersey genes, before we have to deal with a PR nightmare for the sector.
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