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Battle of the dairy bull calf

Photo by Niall Hurson

With ongoing expansion and growth within the dairy herd, Ireland must consider the negative consequences of an increase in the number of low value bull calves, writes Noel Bardon.

Dairy herds across the country have been increasing in size after the removal of EU dairy quotas in 2015. New entrants are flocking to the sector as the industry is seen as a more profitable venture in comparison to the continuation of suckler farming on many holdings around the country. A fact that was little acknowledged by any of the parties involved in the dairy expansion was that of the concerning increase in low value dairy bull calves that would be born each calving season. The task of finding a home for these bull calves will come to the fore on many dairy farms during the Spring of 2020. 

The problem of having to contend with bull calves unwanted by either the dairy or beef sectors is not a new one, either in Ireland or around the developed world. Calves that are composed of a single purpose dairy breed or two breed dairy crosses have been around for as long as farmers have been selecting intensively for dairy production traits. Nowadays, the problem is only compounded with the degree to which breeds have neglected form and confirmation traits, as well as the numbers of calves involved. A change in preference away from traditional British Friesian type cows and towards narrower purebred Holsteins or Jersey cross cows has reduced the levels of beef that can be produced from dairy bull calves.

An extreme case in the damage that can be done to the perception of an entire area of the agri-food industry is that of the coverage of New Zealand’s “bobby calf” situation, whereby approximately 40% of all dairy calves are slaughtered shortly after birth. If such herd management practices became common in Ireland, our hard-earned status as a nation of green, sustainable and welfare friendly food production could be in jeopardy.

Fortunately for producers, there are several solutions to the bull calf crisis on the table presently, although the cost and efficacy associated with the various methods can differ considerably. The two broad strategies for avoiding a crisis in this area centre around the prevention of low value calves entering the herd and an improvement in the management of such animals after birth, so as to extract some value from their rearing for producers.

The number of pure dairy bull calves born on farms can be greatly reduced using sexed semen on cows and heifers from which replacements are being bred. Sexed semen must have a 90% sex purity rate, meaning the chances of conceiving a heifer calf are 90%, compared to 50% for unsexed semen or natural mating. As fewer cows and heifers must be used for the breeding of replacements, a higher proportion of the herd can be mated to beef bulls, producing calves that have a reasonable market value and beef producing ability.

The use of sexed semen has been hindered by the fact that there are no semen sorting laboratories in Ireland and, as genetics companies would have to send bulls to the UK for sorting, the highest merit bulls tend not to be sent. The establishment of a semen sexing facility would give farmers another option in the prevention of unwanted bull calves but the excessively high royalties collected by Cogent, the owner of the IP rights to the process, discourages any of the major players in the breeding industry to take the financial risk in setting a lab up. 

Research into the inclusion beef production traits into the EBI could help to avert the possibility of large numbers of bull calves with little or no value being born each Spring on Irish dairy farms. Including a sub-index related to the carcase weight, carcase grade and feed efficiency could allow the niche of dairy bull calf-to-beef to become more attractive to farmers. Any significant re-beefing of the dairy herd does not appear likely to appeal to the group of breeders most specially focused on milk production traits, the group wielding one of the greatest pulls in determining the direction of change in dairy cow type, pedigree Holstein breeders. Nevertheless, consumer attitudes will only grow in their influence on the profitability of milk production systems as transparency and traceability of the supply chain improve.

Another option for producers is the operation of a veal production system. For many, veal production conjures images of the poor animal welfare standards endemic of the Dutch approach to veal production. This, however, is not the only way in which to rear veal animals and EU regulations have clamped down on such practices. Dairy bull calves can be reared in loose housed systems with normal weaning ages and similar diets to calves being raised to enter the dairy herd in what is likely to be an option considered by some in the context of the bull calf situation.