Lets hear about the boys- what really happens to male calves on a dairy farm?


At the end of March I wrote a blog piece in response to an article published by the Guardian  regarding dairy farming. It has been read by over 23,000 people from all over the world. I hope that it helped to set the record straight regarding what British Dairy farmers do for a living .

The torrent of abuse I received from a handful of angry vegans has died down, so I figured, in an effort to further enlighten people, it is time to publish a follow up. This post is an expansion of one of the paragraphs from my other blog, detailing what actually happens to male calves born on a UK dairy farm.

ayrshire 2

Shot at dawn?

black bull

In his ‘opinion piece’ written for the Guardian, Mr Newkey Burden stated that male calves born on a dairy farm are shot immediately after birth. I assume the author meant this to be a shocking revelation, ‘baby animals’ being shot in the name of food production. It was shocking, because it simply isn’t true.

I will not say that male dairy calves never die at an early age; neonatal calf deaths do occur for several reasons. Calves of both sexes die due to diseases, defects,  injuries and difficult births. Calves may have to be euthanized (put to sleep) due to any one of these, or they may die suddenly.  Some farms may have to euthanize calves, irrespective of sex, if they are prevented from moving them to other farms or rearing units due to Tuberculosis movement restrictions.

Neither will I say that the shooting of young male calves has never happened . However, in the vast majority of cases a male calf born today on a dairy unit will be raised until he is at least 10 to 12 months old ( for rose veal production).

Gender balance

bulls

So why all the fuss about male calves anyway? Historically, dairy farms did not ‘need’ male calves. They did (and still do) need female calves for several reasons:

Replacing ‘lost’ cows- Each year, a number of adult cows will leave a dairy herd for various reasons. These include old age, disease and accidental deaths. Some herds also sell adult cows to other farms. Female calves (heifers) are needed each year to replace these lost members of the herd.

Heifers enter the dairy herd at (approx.) 2 years old. As such, heifer calves need to be born each year to ensure that there are enough cows in the milking herd at any one point in time.

bulls loose housing

The ratio of male to female calves born on a dairy farm, either due to natural service (bull mating) or Artificial insemination, is approx. 60:40. Some farms, in an effort to swing the ratio in favour of females, use ‘sexed semen’ during artificial insemination. This changes the female to male ratio to 90:10.  As you can see, it is impossible to prevent males from being born, so what becomes of them?

Traditionally, male dairy calves (bulls) would be perceived as taking space and food away from the heifers. Nowadays this is no longer the case.

What happens to male calves?

bull in a barrow

If you are a (close minded militant) vegan I suggest you stop reading now, as the next part deals with meat production. If you are open minded and would like to find out more please read on.

There are a few different farming systems that rely on male dairy calves.

  • Rose veal – Ok, you might have heard about ‘veal’ and remember the images of crated calves overfed on milk to produce white veal. Those days are long gone (thankfully). Rose veal refers to meat from male calves that have been reared on a cereal and straw diet for 8-12 months (average 10-12). The calves are housed indoors on straw, and are able to move about and interact with their pen mates. ours mix
  • Bull beef – Male calves in this farming system are raised to between 12 to 16 months. They are fed on a similar diet (cereal/straw) and housed in a similar fashion.
  • Beef – Male calves that go into this system tend to be castrated. Entire male dairy bulls are potentially dangerous, and may injure themselves, other bulls or humans. Bullocks are kept until they are 2 to 3 years of age, before going to slaughter.

red and white bull

Some farms choose/have the facilities to raise their own male calves. Others will sell them on to farms that specifically raise bulls/bullocks.

bulls mixed

Recently I received an email from a vegan activist, asking me whether the dairy industry really does kill all male calves at birth. In the interests of transparency, I conducted a survey (via twitter) asking dairy farmers what they did with their calves. 87 votes were cast,  almost 60% sold their dairy bulls, almost 30% kept them and raised them, 5% bought in calves to rear, with the remainder ‘euthanizing’.  Bearing in mind this was essentially a ‘vox pop’, it does show that the vast majority of dairy bull calves will live much longer than Mr Newkey Burden alleged.

P.S All of the photos on this blog post come from farmers raising male dairy calves. They were sent to me by members of the Ladies and Livestock group on Facebook, in response to a request to show that dairy bull calves do live much longer than the morning they were born.

”We sell all ours through market at around 8weeks! But most definitely are not shot and binned!! 😡

May not be worth a great deal but they cover their costs and unless something was majorly wrong with them why would you kill them?….hate how we’re viewed as complete unemotional murderers 😡😡”

comment from a ‘Ladies and Livestock’ member and farmer in response to my request for information on dairy calves.

3 thoughts on “Lets hear about the boys- what really happens to male calves on a dairy farm?

  1. Congratulations on having the courage to re-enter this debate. I was interested to read in the last week’s Farmers Weekly magazine about studies at Harper Adams University, where they are looking at the benefits of raising dairy beef on forage alone. Although they have not gone into a truly pasture-fed system (disappointingly) and are still to some extent reliant upon supplemented feeding, it does show that there is ongoing interest in the welfare and productivity of bulls born into dairy farming.

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