Our desire to know where our food is coming from, as well as our strong love of animal rights, has resulted in the UK farming industry coming under increased scrutiny in recent years. Many practices that have been common for decades are now being called into question as cruel or unnecessary. One story uncovered from the dairy industry is the practice of killing healthy male calves.

Understandably, this has incurred the anger of a lot of animal-lovers. But there is some good news, with recent policy changes requiring a phasing out of the practice. But why do dairy farmers kill male calves at all? And, now that policies have changed, what will farmers do instead?

What’s the Story? 

Before we bring out the torches, it is important that everyone understands the facts behind dairy farming. 

Dairy farmers exist to produce milk. For reasons we hope need no explanation, only female cattle (cows) produce milk. To produce milk a cow has to have given birth; milking by a farmer mimics the natural action of a calf suckling, encouraging lactation. After a period producing milk the cow naturally starts to ‘dry up’ and stops lactating – to cause lactation again she must give birth again. Female calves are usually raised by the farmer to produce milk themselves. But here we find the problem – not all the calves that are born are female. So what should the farmer do with those males that are born? 

Method Behind the Madness

Unless a dairy farmer has a beef-rearing unit too, it is usually uneconomical for a dairy farmer to keep male calves. Rearing a calf for a few weeks and then selling to a beef farm often results in a loss of income. In many cases, the only sensible option, from a finance point of view, is to humanely kill the calf. This costs around £9 per calf. The AHDB estimates that of the almost 400,000 male calves born on dairy farms each year, 60,000 are killed on-farm within a few days of birth, so the practice is clearly still widespread.

Although these facts are shocking to the average person, it is important to recognise the hardship many farmers face. Farming is a financially hard business and margins are very tight. The price supermarkets pay dairy farmers for milk especially is very low, meaning a farmer that has to spend even a few pounds more may not break even. Therefore, keeping male calves could lead to financial difficulties for many farmers. The COVID-19 pandemic has made dairy farming even more difficult as the demand for milk has dropped considerably, as commercial buyers like restaurants have shut for months on end.

It is also important to remember that UK laws ensure that animals are slaughtered humanely and painlessly. This is unlikely to convince animal rights lovers that the practice is acceptable, but the calf will not suffer.

New Policies 

Luckily for those who disagree with the killing of male calves, Red Tractor (an organisation responsible for upholding food standards) have now banned the “routine euthanasia of calves”, starting from 1st January, 2021 (farmers have a year from then to meet this new standard). Red Tractor covers 95% of UK dairy farms, so this amounts to an almost complete ban of the practice. Furthermore, a number of supermarkets already discourage it, meaning dairy farmers who want to sell their products cannot continue killing newborn male calves. 

This really is a win for animal welfare.

What Now?

Those of you concerned about farmers’ finances (and more of us really should be, as so many products rely on UK milk) need not worry. Red Tractor has implemented this policy change at a good time.

The first major breakthrough has come from the increased use of sexed semen. 

Many dairy farms get their cows pregnant via artificial insemination using donated bull’s semen, or naturally using a bull itself. Using normal semen will result in a roughly 50:50 split between male and female calves. So only half would be profitable or the farmer. Luckily, there is a special technique that removes sperm that would produce males from a semen sample, resulting in semen that will produce females 80-90% of the time.

This eliminates the lost revenue from a male calf, and increases it by providing a female calf that can grow to produce milk. Sexed semen provides an effective method, as no animals are unnecessarily killed and farmers do not lose out. The cost of sexing semen is also much cheaper than what they lose from a male calf. This now represents 50% of the semen now purchased in the UK today.

For those 10-20% of male calves born even with sexed semen, or born to cows impregnated without, there are still options. 

Supermarkets are working to try and provide markets for these calves by buying male calves from dairy farms and rearing them for beef, ensuring the dairy farmer is not out of pocket.

The final option is to raise the male dairy cattle for only a year and sell the meat as rosé veal. Unfortunately, the average UK consumer is not interested in rosé veal and supermarkets do not offer a wide selection of products. In the past, dairy farmers could export male calves to mainland Europe where the market for veal is larger; however, changes in transport policies for animal welfare have almost completely stopped that. The growth of this market would help reduce wastage and provide additional income.

Could You Be Interested in Rosé Veal?

British rosé veal is produced to a high standard; the calves are fed a good diet and are given lots of space to move around. This produces meat that is light, low in fat and flavourful (traditional European veal is white because the cattle are not fed enough iron and become anaemic – this is not allowed in British rosé veal production). Many famous chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver promote rosé veal and use it in their restaurants. For those concerned about eating beef for environmental reasons (such as myself) veal could be a good alternative – the meat would otherwise be a wasted by-product of the dairy industry, so it is much more environmentally friendly than traditional beef. Furthermore, UK standards ensure that rosé veal cattle have a happy life before slaughter. Consider trying rosé veal to help the environment, UK dairy farmers and animal welfare.

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