British forum sets precedent for Irish calf export reduction

While calf exports increased more than 460% in the first six weeks of 2016, a six-year welfare-based programme in Britain resulted in the near cessation of that trade.

The British programme also witnessed a significant rise in the number of dairy bull calves retained in Britain, thereby assisting its beef industry.

In 2006, Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) and the RSPCA conveyed the Beyond Calf Exports Stakeholders Forum.

It sought to find realistic and economically viable solutions that would result in a greater number of male dairy calves being reared in the UK to meet the demand for beef on domestic and international markets.

In 2013 the Forum published its final report, which found that during the seven-year period:

  • The number of male dairy calves retained in Great Britain rose 58%
  • the number of calves being exported reduced by 90%
  • the number of calves killed on farm reduced 36%
  • the numbers of dairy calves killed on farm as a percentage of those born declined from 21% to 12%

The Forum says this progress was achieved by a consensual approach amongst all stakeholders, including producers, processors, retailers and other food outlets, academic and non-governmental organisation.

According to the executive summary, “The reduction in live exports of calves for further fattening has been the most noticeable success with the number of calves being exported reducing by 90% and only 2% of dairy calves born now going abroad. The live export trade is negligible compared with 20 years ago.”

However, no more recent CIWF data since 2012 appears to be available on the topic.

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The Role Of Retailers

“We run a Good Dairy Award for retailers who not only have a good pasture-based approach to rearing their dairy cattle but produce a market for their calves as well,” says Phil Brooke, scientist and Spokesperson for UK-based CIWF.

“In other words, get the supermarkets to join their chains up so that where they have a deal with the farmer to take his milk, they also have a deal with that farmer to take those calves later for their beef or veal. As we concluded in the Forum, we think supermarkets and other retailers have a great responsibility in this.”

Brooke added that in the case of undesired dairy bull calves he hopes that farmers in the long-term would consider, firstly, using sexed semen and, secondly, try developing markets for such a specialist type of beef.

He said Ireland’s favourable pastoral farming is “perfect” for the highest welfare forms of farming, so that such calves need not be exported for farmers to attain a decent profit.

“There is going to be an increasing demand for grass-finished beef on health, quality and welfare grounds. In the longer-term, this is something for Irish farmers to start thinking about trying to sell, as you have the best conditions for free-range farming. Why not use that to sell a high-quality, high-welfare product?”

Brooke also cited the example of what can be done with unwanted Jersey bull calves, which some Irish dairy farmers are understood to be struggling to get rid of at present – at any price.

“Jersey cattle do produce meat that is eaten in some countries. In Poland, for example, there is a taste for more yellow type of fat in beef. In Hampshire there is a firm called Woodlands Jersey Beef that collect male Jersey calves and rear them for a specialist foodie market.”

He said this meat is successfully marketed for its point of difference in taste, but also the ethical brand of consuming a mature animal that would otherwise have been destroyed at birth.

Brooke has previously told Agriland.ie that in the opinion of CIWF, it is better to promptly and humanely slaughter unwanted dairy bull calves than for them to be exported.