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to beefing characteristics. If these cattle cannot make the
weight, conformation and grade, then the economics of
their use in a beef system is questionable, to put it politely.
The discerning beef producer
Beef farmers are becoming increasingly discerning in what
they buy from dairy farms and worried that what they buy
may not ultimately develop into a gradeable beef carcase.
In the worst cases, these calves will not actually finish in
any meaningful definition of the term. While they may be
classed as waste from the dairy sector they are also now
being seen as unsuitable for the beef sector. Unless there
is accurate and complete breed data available for scrutiny
by a buyer it is often difficult to make a judgement on
many of these calves as to whether they have beefing
potential. In some cases, the calf is further compromised
by the fact that the dam is already a crossbred Friesian-
Jersey cow. In these cases the beef farmer can be on
a hiding to nothing, as they try to get these particular
animals to turn into anything resembling a decent beef
The crossbred calf from a Jersey bull on a Friesian cow is
the extreme of the beefing problems coming from a small
proportion of the Irish dairy herd. While those calves sired
by a short gestation, easy-calving beef breed bull may in
some cases have sub-economic beefing characteristics, the
calves sired by a Jersey bull are an even more challenging
Euthanising the problem
So what is to be done? Up until now, because the numbers
are relatively small, these sub-optimal calves are sold
off for `small money' and a beef producer takes his/her
chances to make a profit out of the end product. Some
calves are sold for export, often for veal production. As
numbers grow in parallel with the expanding dairy herd,
more of these sub economic calves will be born. The
numbers of beef farmers willing to take their chances
will not increase as awareness of beefing deficiencies
grows. Neither will export markets be likely to take care
of the numbers involved. Two major dairy producing
countries, Australia and New Zealand, have adopted a
somewhat pragmatic approach to this problem. `Bobby'
calves are disposed of a few days after birth. This is not
yet a widespread tactic in Ireland. The general, though not
universal, opinion is that the `bobby calf option' should
not develop into a long-term strategy to deal with sub-
economic calves in this country. A reasonable case can be
made from an economic viewpoint but try to explain it to
an ever more discerning and critical consumer.
Dressing up the bobby calf
As Natalie Roadknight of the Animal Welfare Science
Centre at the University of Melbourne explained at the
Teagasc Dairy conference last November, bobby calves in
Australia are removed from dairy farms after a few days,
brought to a slaughter facility and disposed of humanely.
The Australian speaker emphatically advised that the
Irish dairy sector should not go down the same route.
The implications for the reputation of the sector are too
great. The negative impact on both the New Zealand
and Australian dairy industries has been significant.
We should, she added, learn from the experiences
of both countries. The bobby calf protocols, without
dressing them up in polite language, are that when the
calf is born it is taken immediately from the mother
(common practice currently on Irish dairy farms for
excellent management reasons, but described by the ever
vigilant social media animal welfare critics as `maternal
deprivation'). After five days of adequate nutrition and
environmental welfare, the calf is walked, pushed, dragged
(take your pick) onto a livestock truck and transported
up to 100km to a slaughter facility. The calf is then fasted
(starved) for 24 hours, presumably to empty its stomach
contents, and then slaughtered. An efficient and effective
disposal system for non-economic calves. Here's the tricky
bit try explaining all of this to a public that is more easily
persuaded by media outrage over animal `cruelty' than
by the sound economic rationale involved. It is a no-win
The herd mentality
Up until now there seems to have been little or
no understanding, or worry, that the enthusiastic
endorsement of the Jersey crossbred route to maximising
dairy profitability could have unintended and negative
consequences for the Irish dairy industry. While only
five per cent of Irish herds have gone down this route,
it is a growing sector. Most, if not all, of the herds on
demonstration and agricultural college farms have some
degree of crossbreeding in their dairy herds. Almost
universally, dairy conferences host farmer speakers with
crossbred herds. Our own Matt Ryan is an advocate of
the economic merits of the Jersey crossbred herd and
the positive impact heterosis can have on profitability.
We pursue this route to maximising profitability at our
peril. Ignoring a looming public relations disaster will not
make it go away. While the problem is being tentatively
addressed and some marginal remedies being proposed
such as more use of sexed semen, an EBI sub-index to
address beefing conformation, developing more export
outlets for the problem calves and a range of other
potential part-solutions they all have one thing in
common. They will not solve the problem quickly, if ever.
In the meantime, we must hope that 2019 is not the year
when there are too many calves without a viable
market outlet.
"The Irish dairy sector
should not go down
the same route. The
implications for the
reputation of the
sector are too great."