Vox pop: Farmers voice views on dairy calf welfare

Animal welfare concerns, particularly on dairy farms, has been bubbling to the surface of the Irish dairy industry over the past number of months.

Some disturbing animal welfare accusations were made at the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers’ Association (ICMSA) AGM, last month. The farmer in question claimed that he knew of some instances involving “some unwanted calves been harmed”.

However, during the recent Teagasc National Dairy Conferences, Teagasc described these poor animal welfare claims as a number of “sensational and morbid rumours”, warning they are circulating from farms to pubs to boardrooms.

Speaking at the conference, Teagasc’s Pádraig French, head of dairy research at Teagasc Moorepark, made the point that Ireland’s calf mortality record is, in fact, very low by international standards.

He stated: “There is absolutely no data to support the frenzy of conversation that has been around calf welfare over the last couple of months; we have talked ourselves into a crisis.”

During his presentation, he displayed the latest scientific data on calf mortality rates on Irish dairy farms between 2011 and 2019. The data showed a clear downward trend in the percentage of calves dead at birth, as well as those dead at 28 days.

To find out what dairy farmers on the ground think of these claims and rumours circulating in the industry – as well as Pádraig’s calf mortality data – AgriLand spoke to a number of attendees on day two of the dairy conference in Mullingar, Co. Westmeath.

‘Bad apples’

Referring to the issue, one farmer stated: “I think you are always going to have bad apples, no matter what industry you are in.

“But, the majority of farmers do a good job at looking after their calves.

“Yes, maybe there are some people that are not looking after their calves, especially when they are dairy bull calves and maybe not giving them the care; but personally, I have never experienced it, so I can’t really comment.

“It is always going to be blown out of proportion; the bad eggs are always going to show up more than the good news stories,” she added.

‘Look at the facts and figures’

“Obviously there is talk in the media, but what they are saying today [at the conference] is that the mortality rates have actually improved,” Rebecca O’Sullivan explained.

“So, looking at the facts and figures, it’s not there; unless there are facts and figures to say that there is a welfare issue, you can’t say anything really.”

This view was echoed by another another attendee: “On the board today, it said that the mortality rates have come down in the last 10 years – as cow numbers have expanded.

“So, I think calf welfare is being well looked after in general. You will always have a percentage of calves lost anyways, so I don’t see that as an issue.”

‘Reported to the authorities’

Touching on how issues – if any – should be handled, one farmer said: “I personally haven’t come across that [calf welfare] as an issue and I certainly know on our farm that it is not an issue.

“I think if there are farmers out there that have identified welfare issues – in relation to calves on farms – as was mentioned here today, they should report it to the appropriate authorities.

“I would feel that it is not something that the average dairy farmer supports and certainly not the beef farmer either.

“So, I think if people have animal welfare concerns they should be reported and dealt with.”

‘I think a lot of it is rumours’

Westmeath dairy farmer Robert English also weighed in on the topic.

“In my own honest opinion on the ground, I think calf welfare is quite good. I don’t see any dairy farmers in my locality neglecting calves.

“All our bull calves get treated the same as our heifer calves. If you think about the concept, if we neglect the bull calves, really all we are going to do is encourage disease on the farm and why would we do that.

“Our policy at home is treat the bulls the same as the heifers and sell them when there is a market for them. I think Pádraig is right, there are rumours going around and I think a lot of it is rumours.

“He had the statistics; the mortality rate has gone down, that doesn’t lie. I don’t see the issue to be honest and I think this spring will probably prove that a lot of it is talk,” Robert concluded.