Tackling the challenge of dairy bull calves

The UK dairy industry prides itself on being a pioneer in dairy cattle welfare; it is a top priority for the sector. However, the 2020 CHAWG report says while over 1.4 million calves are born to dairy cows in GB each year, the challenge of improving the outcome for around 60,000 dairy bull calves with no market to take them has proved a very difficult one. The fate of these dairy bull calves is not a secret; there has been no option but to euthanise them, which poses an ethical challenge for the industry and is the reason it is now a key focus area.

The UK dairy sector has pledged to eliminate any euthanasia of a healthy calf and rear all calves with care by 2023. This means steps must be taken to ensure these calves have a value and are treated with care and consideration as are other calves. However, achieving this is not straightforward. A broader root and branch approach is needed, examining all areas from breeding to feeding and marketing as well as what happens to calves in herds under TB restrictions.

AHDB’s GB dairy calf strategy 2020-2023 is the template for action. It lays out the basis for a co-ordinated strategy, and Ruminant Health & Welfare is now working to implement innovative solutions to address the key areas as part of its Future Sustainable Systems activity. 

These fall into four categories:  

1. Improve breeding – ensuring the right animals are being born that can be reared efficiently and profitably. The means a) ensuring the calf has the right genetics for the rearing set up and the end market, and b) that the use of sexed semen continues to increase (currently more than 50% of semen sales, as estimated in the 2020 CHAWG report)

2. Increase calf rearing capacity – ensuring there is a better supply chain for rearing these calves, potentially making use of extra resource (labour and buildings) from other sectors such as sheep, or positioning calf rearing as a way of new entrants getting into farming without needing land. 

3. Improve marketability – ensuring sales from these animals can be branded as ‘beef’ and that the high eating quality and low carbon footprint of this product is recognised.

4. Address TB-related issues – ensuring animals from farms where TB is likely to be an issue can be moved quickly through the system and are the right breed for indoor rearing and fattening in Approved Finishing Units.

Ruminant Health & Welfare is working on a pilot project in South Wales aimed at addressing these four points and linking them together into a viable and sustainable system which could provide a template for other parts of the country. We look forward to reporting on this soon.

The NFU and AHDB are leading a number of activities on sustainable calf rearing in the run up to the 2023 deadline, and have hosted a Farmer Forum to help support understanding of the Calf Strategy. A Dairy Calf Week running 2–9 February will focus activity around health, nutrition and sustainability. Visit the AHDB/NFU websites towards the end of January for a full itinerary.