The Australian dairy industry has long been grappling with the management of calves not required as replacement milking females; these include bull calves and surplus heifers.
It remains a contentious topic for both industry stakeholders and the wider community alike.
At the heart of the issue lies the often-low dollar value attributed to surplus calves; a factor that at times makes early life slaughter seem the least costly pathway for managing them.
Against this, bobby calf slaughter is widely recognised as being out of step with public values, posing a threat to the industry's social licence to operate.
Dairy beef production is one way that farmers can increase the value of these calves, which can bring with it improved animal welfare and increased profitability, and help in maintaining public trust in the dairy industry.
Keeping pace with the global dairy industry
The Australian dairy industry has seen big shifts in the way milk is produced.
Changes include improvements in pasture management with the Target 10 programs, the production gains achieved through better cow genetics and grain feeding, and the rise of larger farms.
It has also adapted to pressures from outside to protect its social licence, like stopping tail docking, eliminating oestradiol hormones and the current industry-led phase out of routine calving induction.
However, the dairy industry has not yet seen significant change in how non-replacement calves are managed. Most are still transported to slaughter as bobby calves at five days old or are euthanised on farm.
In the absence of viable alternatives, early life slaughter is an important management pathway for non-replacement calves, and when carried out according to all relevant standards and policies, may not cause a compromise to animal welfare.
It does however pose an ethical dilemma when it comes to the purpose of an animal's life and often sits at odds with public values.
Alongside this, many of our international dairying counterparts are taking active steps towards aligning surplus calf management practices with public values.
For example, Great Britain has published its GB Dairy Calf Strategy, in which the industry commits to "rearing all calves with care and eliminating the practice of euthanasia of calves by 2023".
Aside from the ethical considerations of surplus calf management, the international buyers of Australian dairy products are also looking to how the industry is adapting.
Australian processors are required to show evidence of progress when it comes to on-farm animal welfare standards.
In a global society, the Australian dairy industry must now consider how we can keep up with the progress achieved by our international competitors.
Looking for a solution
Raising surplus calves for dairy beef production is an option available to dairy farmers, but it is important to find a way to do this that is economically viable, environmentally sustainable and socially acceptable over the long term.
This challenge is substantial but one that the industry must face.
To explore some of the options in which the dairy industry can meet this challenge, Australian Dairy Farmers will be running the 2021 Dairy Beef Forum, an online event hearing from international and local experts, covering market and policy perspectives, an overview of the levy-funded Australian research in dairy beef, and hearing from local businesses making it work.
Who should come?
The event is open to all people interested in the management of surplus calves in the Australian Dairy Industry and will cover:
This will be an online event with a link provided upon on registration.
The online forum will be held in winter with the date, once confirmed, to be shared through media and industry.
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