Dairy sector facing animal welfare crisis next spring

Growing fears that many farmers will not have the capacity to rear rising numbers of bull calves

Dairygold CEO Jim Woulfe. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Dairygold CEO Jim Woulfe. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Declan O'Brien and Claire Fox

The dairy sector is facing a serious animal welfare challenge this spring if farmers are forced to rear tens of thousands of additional bull calves, a Teagasc animal welfare scientist has warned.

Dr Laura Boyle of Teagasc Moorepark admitted to being very concerned from an animal welfare perspective that many dairy farmers will not have the time or the facilities to rear bull calves that they are unable to sell in the early months of 2020.

She pointed out that most farms do not have either the labour or housing facilities to cope with having to rear additional calves during the busy spring-calving period.

These challenges will be exacerbated by compact calving, where 80pc of calves are born in six weeks, Dr Boyle added.

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The Teagasc scientist insisted, however, that there is time for farmers to put in place remedial measures ahead of the spring, such as converting sheds to house extra calves, and arranging to hire additional labour, or entering arrangements with neighbouring beef units to purchase or contract rear bull calves.

Over 750,000 bull calves will be born to the dairy herd next spring. In the past these calves were either exported to veal units or feedlots on the continent, or were sold in the marts and reared for beef at home by drystock farmers.

However, the market outlook for the coming spring has been hit by greater uncertainty around live exports - which took more than 190,000 calves this year - and collapsing returns from beef. The increased use of Jersey breeding by milk suppliers has also hit drystock farmer demand for dairy calves.

The ICSA has warned that embattled beef farmers cannot be expected to carry the risk of rearing dairy calves to beef in 2020-21. It has called on milk suppliers to enter into contract rearing arrangements with neighbouring drystock units.

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Last year the worst of the dairy bull calves sold for as little as €5-10/hd. With more calves likely to be on off er this February and March, one mart source said it was "difficult to be optimistic" about the trade for dairy bull calves unless beef prices made a "remarkable recovery" in the meantime.

The dairy industry has also taken a hard line with its milk suppliers on the 'bull-calves issue'.

At the Macra conference in Cork Dairygold CEO Jim Woulfe reiterated that there would be "no tolerance for an uncaring approach" to animal husbandry.

However, Dr Boyle cautioned that retaining bull calves on busy dairy farms during the spring significantly increased the risk of serious animal welfare issues.

"I do have concerns about dairy farmers having to rear bull calves that are essentially worthless," Dr Boyle said.

Mr Woulfe maintained that the onus was on dairy farmers to ensure that "best practices" in terms of animal husbandry apply to the rearing of dairy bull calves.

He said farmers had to accept that the male calf was a "by-product" of the dairy industry and warned of the potential for the dairy sector to lose customers if "animal welfare isn't right".

Consumers

"The consumer today is looking to see that things are being done correctly all the way down the line," he insisted.

Mr Woulfe said the bull calf issue was being "debated at co-op level right across the country".

Meanwhile, IFA presidential candidate Tim Cullinan accused some industry commentators of "creating panic amongst dairy farmers" by predicting a total collapse in bull calf prices next spring, and even raising a disposal problem for next March and April.

"What the industry should be focusing on is developing market outlets, based on consumer demand across Europe, and securing those markets through a targeted marketing strategy," said Mr Cullinan.

"There is an enormous market for veal calves in Europe and with the high health status and quality of Irish calves, we should be fighting for a share of that market and not resorting to fatalism."

His rival Angus Woods warned of the repercussions for both the dairy and beef sectors, and "brand Ireland", of a "badly handled dairy calf issue".

"The one thing we cannot forget about with the calf trade is the welfare," he said. "That has to be paramount and override any other interest. Without calf welfare we are in serious trouble."

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