As the 2021 calving season continues, Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue has penned a letter to dairy farmers around the country.

Thanking Irish farmers for their “continued dedication to excellence” in producing the “highest quality milk while ensuring the strictest standards of animal welfare”, the minister paid tribute to the sector.

Highlighting that the future of the sector is in their hands, Minister McConalogue told producers:

“You make the decisions upon which the whole industry is built; you watch over the cow at calving, you care for every new calf, you select replacement stock and decide what goes to market, and you control your breeding plans for next year.

You have huge responsibilities and huge opportunities, and I am committed to supporting you in making 2021 a successful year.

Highlighting the recent launch of Ireland’s first animal welfare strategy, which he said recognises the strong linkages between the health and welfare of people and animals, the minister said:

“Where farmers ensure good animal welfare, everyone wins. Healthy, happy animals are more productive and are more resistant to disease, requiring fewer vet visits and fewer antibiotics.

“High welfare standards are also crucial in maintaining consumer trust – the very foundation of our national and international markets.

Standards are generally high on Irish dairy farms but we cannot be complacent.

In his letter, the minister included advice on calf welfare recently produced by the Farm Animal Welfare Advisory Council (FAWAC).

“While the majority of animals born on dairy farms are not needed as dairy replacement stock and are often moved off the farm of birth at a young age, it is really important that we demonstrate that these animals have a value and are entitled to good care,” he said.

“This is in everyone’s interest, especially for the farmer who breeds them so they can be successfully marketed at home or abroad.

“It is also important that high calf welfare standards are maintained by everyone responsible for the calf during its lifetime; contract rearers, calf dealers, transport operators, handlers at marts and in slaughter plants and the beef farmer who buys the calf all have their roles to play.

“While many of you have already commenced calving for 2021, I am urging each dairy farmer to commit once again to the highest standards of animal welfare now and into the future.”

Minister McConalogue stressed that the vast majority of farmers are already carrying out the following actions, but it is important to remember the following tips:
  • Plan to have adequate facilities and labour resources reflecting the number of cows on the farm for the calving season;
  • Have a robust calf care regime, ensuring that calves receive the essential colostrum needed to protect them from disease – each calf should get 3L within two hours of birth, from the first milking of the cow;
  • Best practice is that calves should continue to receive transition milk from their mother for the first two days of life;
  • Calves must be fed at least twice a day with milk or milk replacer until they are at least four weeks of age;
  • Develop a plan for calves not being retained on the farm, checking now with your proposed trading partners to be certain that you have an outlet for these calves when you need it;
  • Develop your breeding plan for spring 2021 to maximise the future beef potential of any calves that will not be required as replacement dairy stock, using the dairy-beef index. This is particularly important, since we must diversify the range of outlets for calves that will not go on to become dairy replacements.

Moving on to underline the importance of careful planning for the breeding season, the minister said:

“Carefully managed animal breeding has been identified as a concrete action that will not only reduce the environmental footprint on farm but will also increase farm profitability.

“This is brought into focus by our national AgClimatise Roadmap. With careful planning to ensure constant improvements, dairy farms can make economic gains not by increasing cow numbers, but by rearing replacements that provide greater economic returns and improve the carbon footprint of finished products.

“I would encourage you to make use of the tailored advice available to every dairy farmer from ICBF [Irish Cattle Breeding Federation] in this regard.

For our part, my department will continue to work in partnership with the dairy sector through the Calf Stakeholder Group and I have once again made further funding available to assist with upgrades or the purchase of equipment that can help with calf rearing through the Targeted Agriculture Modernisation Schemes (TAMS).

“With a particularly busy few months ahead, I can assure you that I am working to support you in protecting and building on our reputation and I count on you for your continued commitment to the Irish agri-food sector, where dairy farmers have an especially important role in nurturing our enviable national reputation.”

In a final point, the minister acknowledged the intense workloads many farmers are currently under, stating:

“Farms can be pressurised environments during these times. I am asking you to not only mind your herd’s health, but also your own health and welfare.”