Dairy’s ‘dirty secret’: it's still cheaper to kill male calves than to rear them

Dairy farms need female cows to produce milk but with little demand for male calves many farmers can’t afford to keep them beyond birth

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.

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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.

David Finlay of Cream o’ Galloway at Rainton Farm; the male calves here stay with their mother.
David Finlay of Cream o’ Galloway at Rainton Farm; the male calves here stay with their mother. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

“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.”

A joint NGO, retailer, farming and government initiative to promote markets for bull calves, that closed in 2013, estimated more than £100m was being lost from calves killed before realising their economic worth.

The alternatives to early disposal are not simple. Half a million calves used to be exported from dairy farms via ferries to the continent, which has a larger market for veal.But public protests and industry pressure against animals being sent on long journeys in lorries and lower animal welfare standards in other countries has seen that outlet largely disappear. No calves were exported from England last year, although an estimated 5,000 calves did leave from Scotland and a further 20,000 from Northern Ireland.

Attempts to promote a market for high welfare British rosé veal, championed by the likes of Jamie Oliver and Jimmy Doherty, have met with mixed success with margins for farmers tight and consumer interest low. The RSPCA is calling for the food industry to be allowed to rename veal as rosé beef to end consumer misconception of it as a white meat produced from calves kept in crates and fed milk – a system that was banned in the UK in the early 1990s.

Another alternative is to rear the calves for longer and sell them as beef. One of the companies doing that is Buitelaar, set up in 2006 and which collected more than 35,000 calves from dairy farms across the UK last year. It arranges for them to be reared indoors on a mixed diet and then sold after 12-14 months through UK supermarkets, restaurants and fast food chains. But some breeds such as Jersey cows are not seen as suitable for this option.

There has been a steady growth in the use and effectiveness of sexed semen since the early 1990s, accounting for 18% of total semen sales in 2017. It increases costs for farmers but can reduce the proportion of male calves being born to less than 10%.

Supermarkets could play an important role in reforming the situation and providing a market for meat from bull calves. Tesco, Aldi, Iceland, Lidl, the Co-op and Asda do not ban their milk suppliers from shooting bull calves and it is not outlawed under organic standards. But some of the large chains – the Co-op, Morrisons, Sainsburys and Waitrose – have launched schemes, in conjunction with beef companies such as ABP, Buitelaar and Dunbia, to collect calves and ensure they are reared rather than destroyed.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) warns that post-Brexit trade deals could make it harder for farmers to find a market for male calves. “A trade deal that allows cheap beef from countries with lower standards of production will most definitely damage many of the positive initiatives that have been developed over recent years to utilise dairy bull calf beef and veal within the UK market,” said NFU dairy advisor Siân Davies.

A small number of dairy farmers are experimenting with trying to make more use of the bull calves. David Finlay, who runs Cream O’Galloway, one of the UK’s largest ethical dairy farms in southwest Scotland, keeps his male and female calves with their mothers for the first five months. The male calves are then reared separately before being sold to a veal producer at eight months.

He loses a large proportion of the milk produced by the female cows, but says his use of a dual purpose breeds of cows (good for milk and meat) means he gains a better market price for the animals. “The message coming to farmers from their peers and the industry is still to chase litres at all costs. But if you are chasing milk there will be a cost in terms of bull calves.”

Send us your stories and thoughts at animalsfarmed@theguardian.com


Tom Levitt

The GuardianTramp

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