New initiatives to help end the practice of killing young male dairy calves in the UK are being planned by farming groups and NGOs.
A recent Guardian investigation found a rise in the numbers being disposed of at birth – 95,000 a year according to the most recent figures – due to the lack of viable markets for bull calves and public apathy towards consuming young beef and British rosé veal.
The dairy industry body AHDB said it was working with the National Farmers Union (NFU) to convene a group of stakeholders including retailers and NGOs to work on the issue, but that dairy farmers must not be left to carry the blame.
“The bottom line is that we need a market outlet for these calves: if it’s not economic to rear them, farmers won’t. So, as a supply chain, let’s work on solutions rather than playing the blame game. Ultimately the answer lies with consumers in the purchasing decisions they make,” NFU dairy advisor Siân Davies told the Grocer magazine.
AHDB said that finding markets for bull calves was a key aim of the industry-ledDairy Cow Welfare Strategy, which started in 2010, but that there was no quick fix. “We will have to wait and see what this stakeholder group can achieve because it is trying to create and influence the market. This is not something that can be done overnight,” an AHDB spokesperson said.
The NGO Compassion in World Farming said it was also planning on reconvening a stakeholder group it co-chaired with the RSPCA – and which was disbanded in 2013 – to try to establish what is happening and what needs to be done to help.
One issue that it plans to look at is the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB), which limits the markets available for dairy farmers to sell their bull calves. Calves born on farms that have had an incidence of bTB face restrictions about where they can be moved or sold to.
One report has estimated 30,000 male calves were being held on TB-restricted farms. The government could help tackle the problem, say producers, by approving more farms able to take calves from those farms that have suffered an incidence of bTB.
Sussex-based Rob Drysdale, who runs StraightLine Beef, a business finding markets for male dairy calves, says the biggest issue remains changing public attitudes to buying veal and dairy beef. He works with seven dairy farms across the south-east and south-west of England, and Wales and expects to grow more than 4,000 calves into dairy beef and rosé veal this year. His customers include the Co-op, Sainsbury’s and local restaurants and export markets.
“The main barrier is the industry realising we can utilise a range of bull calves and these do have a value, as well as convincing the public to change their habits and buy high-welfare British rosé veal and dairy beef,” he said.
The RSPCA has been among those calling for the food industry to be allowed to rename veal as rosé beef to end consumer perception of it as a white meat produced from calves kept in crates and fed milk – a system banned in the UK in the early 1990s.
The UK, and indeed the dairy industry itself, is far from alone in having to tackle the problem of what to do with the male offspring of some farming systems, with other sectors under the spotlight including goats’ milk. Both continental Europe and the US currently have a higher consumer demand for veal, but in New Zealand an estimated 40% of male dairy calves are currently disposed of after birth.