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Dairy’s ‘dirty secret’

it's still cheaper to kill male calves than to rear them

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robert99 robert99 Sweden Posts: 1360
1 26 Mar 2018

The number of male calves being killed straight after birth is on the rise again, despite efforts by the dairy industry to end the practice known as ‘the dirty secret’.

A Guardian analysis shows that it can cost a farmer up to £30 per calf to sell it on for beef or veal, while early disposal costs just £9. A growing number of farmers feel compelled to take the latter option, with 95,000 killed on-farm in the most recent set of figures.

Dairy farms depend on female cows to produce milk, so when male calves are born, they are surplus to requirements and farmers are currently faced with few options.

They can immediately dispose of the calf, either by shooting it themselves or contracting a knackerman to do it [licensed slaughter business that will kill or collect dead farm animals]. They can sell the calf to be raised for veal or beef. Or they can sell the calf for live export. A few farms are experimenting with keeping the calves with the mothers for longer, but this is an expensive and rarely chosen option.

Early disposal is known as the ‘dirty secret’ by farmers, and none relish it. But keeping the calf to sell on to be raised for beef or veal means the farmer will have to rear them for two to four weeks to a good enough weight to interest buyers, at a typical cost of around £2 a day, with selling prices at market as low as £25-40. This doesn’t include extra costs such as getting the calf to market, registering its birth or veterinary bills.

In contrast, shooting the calf costs as little as £9, including the cost of the knackerman who will incinerate the body, or in some cases send them to kennels to be turned into dog food. Calves shot on farm cannot enter the human food chain and farmers can only dispose of calves themselves if they have a licensed incinerator.

Dairy farmers in the UK have been under extreme pressure to cut costs for the last two decades, with milk long used as a loss leader by supermarkets to draw shoppers into their stores. “Some farmers might do the maths and figure out after rearing, transport and time away from the farm it might not add up,” says Chris Dodds, from the Livestock Auctioneers’ Association (LAA).

The estimated 95,000 calves disposed on-farm represents 19% of the male dairy calves born, according to the most recent figures from the dairy industry body AHDB. In 2013 the number had fallen to 13% of male dairy calves born from a previous 21%. The exact numbers shot on farm is difficult to collate as farmers destroying calves within a few days of birth on farm do not need to register the birth - and neither does the company collecting and disposing of the animal.

One dairy farmer, who asked to remain anonymous, explained to the Guardian that she could not find a market for her male calves. “This year we’re shooting the Jersey crosses, because we’ve not got the space or money to keep them. It doesn’t make me feel good.

“We get the knackerman out to do it. I could never do it. I can’t even feed them if I know they are going to be dead in a few days.” She said the issue was still “kept under the carpet” by the wider food and farming industry and that consumer markets needed to be developed and farmers financially supported to rear the calves.

Another farmer told the Guardian: “I shoot black and white bull calves [the Holstein Friesian breed that predominates the dairy sector in the UK], but am still not hardened to like doing it. We have too many calves here. The space available on the farm [an 800-cow dairy herd] is only suitable for a maximum of 80. The less calves I have the better for the overall farm. This is a business and it has to be financially viable to make it worthwhile.”