Growing demand for transparency around animal welfare has seen the dairy industry’s approach to bobby calves come under the spotlight recently.
This scrutiny is likely to continue as consumers and the public condemn the practice, which sees unwanted young calves – around 1.8 million in 2018 – sent to slaughter.
Ministry for Primary Industries figures confirm that bobby calf slaughter numbers have been trending upward since the early-2000s.
The risk to the New Zealand industry is all about reputation, says Greenlea Premier Meats’ business development manager Julie McDade, who spoke about the zero bobby calf movement at a recent Beef + Lamb NZ field day in Taneatua, Bay of Plenty.
At the field day, Julie asked farmers to put themselves in the shoes of an urban American consumer and view our bobby calf process through their eyes. “How does this look in terms of animal welfare and sustainability?
“The groups I speak with about this issue, get it. It’s an area of risk for both red meat and dairy, and I believe farmers are open to addressing the problem,” says Julie.
“Not that long ago, induction was commonplace. At the time change was proposed, people threw their hands up in the air and thought it was an impossible challenge to remove this practice. But the industry has now moved away from it.
“Change didn’t happen overnight. [But] I think the same is possible with bobby calves,” says Julie.
DairyNZ Bay of Plenty regional leader Andrew Reid agrees, saying that the industry recognises the importance of the issue. And although DairyNZ doesn’t have a position on zero bobby calves, Andrew says: “The time is right for change”.
Julie believes intentional breeding programmes using sexed semen are likely to be part of the solution.
“Using female-sexed semen to produce replacement calves and high genetic worth semen to produce more bull calves will reduce the number of unwanted calves.
“Partnerships between dairy and sheep and beef farmers, and farmers moving to hybrid systems that includes both dairy and red meat production, will also be important.”
But Julie is quick to point out there is no magic bullet to fixing the problem, and that the solution would look different for each farm.
“Don’t try to solve the problem for the industry,” she told farmers at the field day. “Solve it for yourself, on your patch.”
While there’s currently no regulatory or industry self-imposed deadline for moving to a zero bobby calves, Julie says there is evidence that some farmers are changing their practices.
“There is no single solution, and the ultimate resolution to the issue of bobby calves is likely to involve a number of different options.”