“Every sperm is sacred,” as are profits, but calf welfare is not
DUBLIN, Ireland––Irish dairy farmers, having bred an expected 800,000 more bull calves to be born in spring 2020 than they can profitably sell in a contracting global beef market, may resort to shooting hundreds of thousands at birth, Guardian newspapers reporters Sophie Kevany and Mattha Busby revealed on January 20, 2020.
The Kevany and Busby exposé appeared only hours after ANIMALS 24-7 reported on the belated introduction to India of sperm-sorting technology used in the U.S. for more than 30 years to prevent conception of surplus bulls.
Plant-based dairy products are the longterm answer
Sperm-sorting could also be used in Ireland, one of the nations where the technique of limiting surplus male cattle births was developed, but Irish farmers so far have been reluctant to try it.
The most probable alternative, however, is that increasing global recognition of the cruelty inherent in milk production will continue to undercut demand for dairy products, further accelerating sales of plant-based alternatives including soy milk, rice milk, almond milk, and milk chemically identical to cows’ milk cultured from yeast.
This, in the long run, will bring down the entire dairy industry.
Irish farmers left holding the bag
Meanwhile back on the auld sod, an Irish/American term meaning “the old country,” export demand for Irish dairy products has surged since the European Union eliminated dairy quotas in 2015.
A cow, however must give birth each spring to produce milk for the rest of the year. While female calves are usually added to the milking herd, either to expand the herd or as replacements for their great-grandmothers, bull calves in Ireland, as in the U.S., are traditionally sold for veal or castrated and raised for beef, as steers.
Since export demand for beef is stagnant or declining, Irish dairy farmers are left holding the bag––and will soon be holding hundreds of thousands of male calves they cannot sell for slaughter at any price.
Bull calves are “the industry’s waste product”
“The Irish dairy herd has increased from 1.1 million to 1.6 million over just a few years,” observed Conor Heneghan of the Irish online news website Joe, “an increase the Irish SPCA describes as unsustainable and which it says is leading to an increase in the industry’s waste product, i.e. male calves who are of no use to the industry.”
“Nearly 30,000 calves were slaughtered last year after they reached ten days of age,” reported Lynne Kelleher of the Irish Examiner on December 5, 2019, warning that the massacre in 2020 may be many times worse.
Nonetheless, Bórd Bia (Irish Food Board) senior meat and livestock manager Joe Burke remained bullish on breeding, influencing farmers throughout Ireland to further expand their herds.
“Beef protests” blamed for declining demand
“This year  has been a challenging year for beef farmers across the country,” Burke acknowledged to Agriland reporter Michael Geary. “To date, there has been a reduction of over 60,000 head of cattle slaughtered in meat processing plants.
“However, this was due to the beef protests that took place outside processing facilities,” Burke said. “There has been a reduction in the demand for beef globally and the consumption of beef is also in decline.”
Yet “There is good news on live exports,” Burke boasted. “This year, 266,101 cattle have been exported and this is expected to reach 300,000 by the end of the year .
“This is a 20% increase compared to last year,” Burke continued. “Over 190,000 calves were exported, mainly to Spain and the Netherlands – which took over 80,000 head alone.
Sees African swine fever as good news
“The situation with African swine fever in China has opened up a pathway for Irish beef,” Burke added.
Burke was apparently oblivious to the reality that only 6% of all the beef sold in China in 2019 was imported, despite the loss of half the national pig herd to African swine fever, and only 3.5% of that was from nations other than Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Australia, and New Zealand.
Wrote Kevany and Busby of The Guardian, “The situation is further complicated by Ireland’s “compact calving” system, which sees most calves born in a 12-week period from February to April, and the swift removal of calves from their mothers.
“Although most dairy industry professionals refused to openly discuss the possibility of a cull,” Kevany and Busby reported, Cork-based cattle veterinarian Bill Cashman recommended to them that vets should visit dairy farms every other day to kill surplus calves by lethal injection.
Calves shipped too young
The use of pentobarbital, however, would preclude using the calves’ remains for animal food, including pet food.
Colorado livestock consultant Temple Grandin agreed with Cashman, Kevany and Busby mentioned, “that from a welfare perspective slaughtering very young calves is likely more humane than a long journey by sea without milk replacer,” en route to slaughter elsewhere, possibly after fattening in close confinement in veal crates.
“The option of exporting the calves may provide a financial return for farmers,” continued Kevany and Busby, “but campaigners have queried the welfare implications of sending young, unweaned calves on long journeys by ship or truck. The minimum age [for export] is supposed to be 14 days,” but Kevany and Busby said they had learned from a confidential industry source that, “Some farmers are registering calves as born earlier, in an attempt to get them off the farm as quickly as possible.
“Mistreatment well documented”
“European veal farms are the main export destination for younger calves,” Kevany and Busby continued, “while older animals – male and female – tend to sell to Turkey, Libya, Morocco, Lebanon, Russia, Tunisia, Rwanda or Kosovo for beef and dairy use.
“Mistreatment has been well documented,” Kevany and Busby wrote. “In a 2018 report on farm animal welfare the European Court of Auditors noted that Ireland was guilty of infringing calf transport rules. A 2016 investigation by Compassion in World Farming showed that some journeys were lasting over 27 hours, in cramped conditions with no drinking facilities. In May 2019 footage taken [two months earlier] at a French control post in Cherbourg by the animal activist group Eyes on Animals appeared to show calf mistreatment.”
That was an understatement.
“Horrified & angered”
As Conor Heneghan wrote at the time, the Irish SPCA said it was “horrified and angered by footage of Irish dairy calves being physically abused, kicked, dragged by the ears, thrown and stamped on by after arriving on a ferry from Rosslare in March .
“The abuse of the Irish dairy calves was detailed in an investigation by the animal welfare groups Eyes on Animals and L214, an investigation which trailed 23 Irish livestock trucks and inspected the conditions the animals were exposed to between March 14-17,” Heneghan elaborated.
“Amongst the disturbing findings in the investigation was that the abuse was so severe, calves were collapsing in pain, dragging their hind legs along the floor unable to get back up. One employee, meanwhile, threw a calf to a concrete floor and jumped on his fragile body with full force while other employees looked on.”
Agriculture minister does little or nothing
Summarized Kevany and Busby, “The investigation found that calves were transported for over the maximum allowable journey time of 19 hours and were not rested or fed appropriately. It also found that lorry drivers had exceeded the maximum allowed number of driving hours, risking not only animal welfare but also themselves and other road users.
“Furthermore, it was revealed that the trucks being used to transport the cattle were overcrowded and did not have accessible drinking water for the calves during the journey.”
The Irish SPCA asked Irish minister for agriculture Michael Creed to “launch an immediate investigation and to immediately suspend the export of calves from Ireland to France and the Netherlands until the investigation is complete.”
Apart from verbally “deploring” the videotaped violence against the calves, however, Creed appears to have done little or nothing at the time.
Live exports “not helping the average farmer”
Later, summarized Eyes on Animals, Creed pledged that in 2020, “More unannounced checks will be carried out, transport by sea will sometimes be accompanied by veterinarians, and measures will be taken to prevent overloading, inadequate resting time and rough treatment at the control posts.”
Meanwhile, reported Barry Roche of the Irish Times, Creed in November 2019 “played down concerns that 2020 will see a glut of calves on the Irish market with resultant concerns for animal welfare.”
“The only winners in this outdated industry are the exporters.” Compassion in World Farming spokesperson Caroline Rowley told Kevany and Busby of The Guardian.
“Live export volumes are going up each year,” Rowley noted, “but prices are not following. It is not helping the average livestock farmer.”
“Bioeconomics of sexed semen utilization”
Sperm-sorting, however, would help the average Irish dairy farmer, according to a May 2018 report entitled “Bioeconomics of sexed semen utilization in a high-producing Holstein-Friesian dairy herd,” published in Volume 101, Issue 5, of the Journal of Dairy Science.
“The analysis assumed a fixed dairy herd size of 70 cows, in line with the average herd size among commercial dairy farms in Ireland,” summarized the authors. This study identified a significant profit advantage to using sex-sorted semen in the context of a high-output, spring-calving dairy system in Ireland. This financial advantage was largest in a scenario where both heifers and cows—rather than heifers only—were inseminated with sex-sorted semen.”
“God gets quite irate”
So why are Irish dairy farmers not using this off-the-shelf technology to boost their own profits, while reducing animal suffering at the same time?
The British comedy troupe Monty Python may have hinted at the answer in their 1983 film The Meaning of Life.
Choruses of starving Irish orphans, street urchins, pall bearers, and eventually nuns sang, reciting the Catholic dogma historically prevailing in Ireland, “Every sperm is sacred. Every sperm is great. If a sperm is wasted, God gets quite irate.”