Developing calf-rearing alternatives
In an era of high animal-welfare regulation, especially in relation to calves, we must assume, in the absence of any other probability, that even more stringent standards will be imposed in the years ahead. These impositions, as we read in the Tirlán commentary in this issue, will not be confined to our official regulators. Increasingly, there will be animal-welfare demands made along the marketing chain up to and including supermarkets and consumers. This time last year, we praised the efforts of Irish MEP, Billy Kelleher, and some of his colleagues, to mitigate the most extreme aspects of proposed EU legislation to reduce animal transport times, age of transport, and distances and conditions under which cattle movements would be permitted. Taken to the extreme, the transport of cattle between the extreme ends of Cork and Kerry could have been banned. While such restrictions seem laughable, the fact that they were proposed seriously should be a warning of what is in prospect should EU parliamentarians – of whom very few have any appreciable knowledge of the practicalities of livestock farming – decide to revisit the subject of animal movement around the EU.
Ireland is the most vulnerable to change. Exporting livestock, inevitably, means long travel distances and times. There is a tide and it is running against us. Billy Kelleher et al. will not hold back that tide indefinitely. The continuing export of calves as a pressure-release valve for surplus numbers will, at best, be a restricted practice in the years ahead. Planning for that eventuality is both necessary and prudent. In addition, slaughtering young calves of limited economic value cannot continue and 2023 must herald the end of herd-breeding strategies that, inevitably, give rise to the birth of sub-economic calves.
We are building a more robust breeding system through the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) and Teagasc which can add more economic value to dairy-beef calves and ensure that non-replacement calves from dairy farms can be moved through the food chain in a manner that delivers both high welfare and profitability. While breeding progress is being made, it is, inevitably, a slow burner. The development of dairy calf-to-beef enterprises is well advanced. It must be made more attractive, and quickly. To encourage further participation, a generous grant aid of 80-90 per cent support for the purchase of automated calf-feeder systems would be a positive development. The benefits, in terms of improved calf welfare, alone make it logical. Add in the necessity of creating more dairy-calf-to-beef enterprises and the logic is even more pressing. In addition, we have a tried and tested dairy-replacement contract-rearing system in place. After some reticence, increasing numbers of dairy and cattle farmers have adopted this practice. It facilitates milk producers in maximising milk output and ensures a profit margin for cattle farmers rearing dairy replacement heifers. The question now is should this concept be extended to the rearing on contract of non-dairy replacement cattle. Bull calves in the main, but also dairy beef heifers could be reared on contract on cattle farms. After allowing for rearing costs, any profit accruing could revert to the dairy owner or be shared by the two parties. That is a matter for contractual negotiation. The critical issue is to make it as attractive as possible for all involved. It would not necessarily be for mass adoption, no more than outsourcing the rearing of dairy replacements is universally adopted, but it would offer another alternative and options are what we need right now. The Teagasc EveryCalf Project is a potential blueprint.