Brian Daly interviews RSPCA Australia’s Senior Scientific Officer (farm animals), Melina Tensen, to find out more about bobby calves in the Australian dairy industry, and how we can improve their welfare.
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Opening quote: As consumers of dairy products, we need to be working towards making sure that not only the lives of dairy cows producing that milk is of the highest standard and considers their welfare but also all the other animals involved in dairy production and particularly the calves.
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Brian: Hello, and welcome to RSPCA Australia's humane food podcast series. My name is Brian Daly and today I'm talking with Melina Tensen. The farm animal scientific officer at RSPCA and we're talking about dairy, veal and bobby calf welfare. So welcome to the podcast Melina.
Melina: Thanks, Brian.
Brian: Now, Australians eat a lot of dairy. On average, over 100 litres of milk, 13 kilos of cheese, nearly five kilos of butter and nine kilos of yoghurt each and every year. So, it's a big industry. And there's an area of animal welfare the RSPCA is looking to improve in the industry and that's around the issue of bobby calves. Now, if we could start with some basics, Melina, what's a bobby calf?
Melina: Well, many people will probably know or be familiar with dairy cows grazing out at pasture, but it's quite noticeable that those cows are not accompanied by calves or other animals. They're literally just dairy cows on their own, on pasture. So, you might wonder what happens to all the calves or indeed, where does all the milk come from. But in order for a dairy cow to produce milk, they actually have to have had a calf. It's similar to human beings, even when a woman gives birth. Obviously, they produce milk and they're lactating and the baby's able to drink that milk. It's exactly the same with cows. So, in the dairy industry, like with any other animal, or even human beings, there's a 50/50 chance of having a male calf or a female calf, and the female calves are often used to go back into the dairy herd and become future dairy cows, whereas the male calf obviously, because a male doesn't produce milk, considered a waste product or a by-product of the dairy industry. And these male calves are called bobby calves. And their destiny is effectively because they are a waste product, their destiny is often to be sent to slaughter at around five days old.
Brian: Right. So there's a, that's a very short lifespan for these animals.
Melina: It's an incredibly short lifespan because a bobby calf doesn't produce milk. There's no reason for it to be in that dairy. And therefore, it's a cost to the dairy farmer basically, to keep that animal alive. So because it has such low value, it's taken away from the mother within 12 to 24 hours of birth, and then put in a in a shed with other male calves and then within five days, a truck comes to pick them up and takes them to slaughter.
Brian: So there's no way they can just stay with their mothers or is there an issue with keeping them with them? For a short time?
Melina: It's been common practice for many, many years in the dairy industry to remove the calf from the mother in order to, number one, better manage the cow. So a cow and a calf, you can imagine, walking to a milking shed, the calf is going to get in the way of the, the cow, it's going to make it more difficult to milk that cow. So managing the two separately is from a labour perspective beneficial, but the main reason in Australia that calves are separated from their mothers is to prevent disease in the calf. Johne’s disease is a disease that calves can get from their mothers and it's a bacterial disease. And certainly, if you're raising heifer calves or female calves, then you don't want them to be diseased. So the reason for separating calves from their mother at such an early age is really to ensure that the calf receives enough colostrum to prevent the car from catching any diseases from their mother, but also to manage the mother more efficiently.
Brian: Yeah. Okay, so and given the size of the industry, I guess, the numbers aren’t small either.
Melina: That's right. So literally, there's probably about 1.6 million dairy cows in Australia at the moment. And if each of those dairy cows is producing a calf, that's a lot of calves being born into the industry and say half of those are male calves. That's a fair number of calves. So, what to do with all these calves is a key question. And in the past, sending these animals to slaughter has been the go to method. Another way of dealing with all these male calves because they are considered a waste product is simply to kill them on farm on the day of birth, which is pretty wasteful when you think about it. And also, from the farmers perspective, you know, there'd be a reluctance there to kill that animal as well. Which is another reason why more often than not, they're sent to slaughter rather than being killed on farm.
Brian: Because a farmer's natural instinct would be to care for an animal, to care for those animals.
Melina: Exactly, exactly. But what we've been seeing too in recent years is the use of sexed semen. So, when they impregnate the cow, they usually use semen. So artificial insemination rather than a natural mating. And they can choose to use semen where the likelihood is that the calves will be born females rather than males. So that's what sexed semen is, it's predominantly, a female progeny will result from that insemination. And so because we've got more female calves coming into the system, those calves can be used to replace older dairy cows that you know, and no longer milking sufficiently and also with more heifer calves or female calves, you have a reduced number of male calves that then have to be sent to slaughter or dealt with in some other way.
Brian: And I guess even you know if they do get transported it may still be an issue for animals that young, I'd imagine.
Melina: Yeah, so there's a lot of issues with transporting bobby calves. So, we're dealing with an animal that's five days old when it's transported to slaughter. And at that young age, these calves don't really have that following instinct that are much older cow would have. If you've seen dairy cows walking from the paddock to the dairy, you know that they all like to walk in a group and they know exactly where they're going and what's expected of them. Whereas with bobby calves, that's not the case at all. So what you see is that when these animals have to be transported, they might be roughly handled because they're not moving quickly enough or they simply lie down because they don't want to walk or they you know, they don't know what's expected of them. And then they'll be lifted and potentially thrown into the transport vehicle and they're dealing with unfamiliar environments, unfamiliar people handling them, often unfamiliar calves, because the truck might pick up a number of calves from a number of farms. And then of course, all this time, while they're on the truck on that journey to the abattoirs. They have no feed and no water. And then when they arrive at the abattoirs, it could be late in the afternoon. So often these calves will be held in pens at the abattoirs overnight and then slaughtered in there. The following morning, first thing usually. So, you know, that's a fairly lengthy process for such a young animal and very stressful process and all this time without its mother and without feed and without water. So, it's definitely not ideal from a, you know, a welfare perspective to transport animals at such a young age when they don't have that following behaviour and don't know what's expected of them.
Brian: So it's no wonder you're looking for ways to eliminate that need for that to happen.
Melina: Exactly anything we can do to improve the fate of bobby calves that are slaughtered at such a young age. Surely is a better thing.
Brian: Yeah. So I mean, it's an image that we don't get when we see the dairy farm at the moment we see, you know, beautiful pastures and, and quite what we consider would be contented cows.
Melina: And I think that's an important thing to remember that, you know, as, as consumers of dairy products, we need to be working towards making sure that not only the lives of dairy cows producing that milk is of the highest standard and considers their welfare but also all the other animals involved in dairy production, and particularly the calves and how calves, for example, the female calves are read, but also how bulls are handled when there is a natural mating rather than artificial insemination. So it's the whole of production system that we need to think about when we're producing and consuming dairy products.
Brian: Yeah, so I guess the alternative there is to raise these calves for meat production. Is that an alternative that you're looking at?
Melina: Well, when you look at the female calf, It's common practice to raise them to an old age so that they can join the dairy herd. So, you might wonder well with the male calves, why can't it be common practice to raise them to an older age and do something with them. In other words, give them more value. Because a five day old calf that goes to the abattoir is a by-product, it's excess to dairy industry requirements, and it has no value. So, if we manage, we think about what we can do with that animal to give it more value. And thereby by giving it more value, increasing the prospects of improving their welfare because we're motivating the farmer to care for them in a better way. Then you know that's, that's an avenue and we're obviously talking about veal here. So if your raise a male calf to an older age, say eight months or older, then that veal product which is a high value, beef product is going to be you know, giving that animal a life worth living at Essentially, rather than being sent off to the avatar when it's so young.
Brian: But it's not done a great deal in Australia at the moment, there is a veal industry here, but is there room for it to grow in that way?
Melina: There's a very small veal market in Australia. And that's probably why raising of male calves isn't as popular as it would be overseas. In Europe, and particularly some Mediterranean countries veal is a very popular meat. And I should say also that the way of raising veal in crates, the way is done in some countries in Europe, although it's increasingly uncommon in Europe does not occur and has never occurred in Australia.
Brian: So where they’re kept in a crate and can't move?
Melina: Exactly, so usually kept in darkish sheds, in a crate where they literally have very little room to move, and their diet is purely milk. So, one of the health issues they have is a lack of iron, and all the consequences of that. So that doesn't happen here in Australia. So, when you buy a veal product in a supermarket in Australia more often than not, it's from a younger beef animal rather than a dairy animal.
Brian: Yeah. So, we wouldn't want to see that happen anyway, in Australia, obviously. So that, veal is a very different thing.
Melina: Yeah. So, there's opportunities for veal, for example, in export markets or in high end restaurants, and the hotel trade, catering and that sort of market. And certainly from the RSPCA perspective, we would rather see an animal that would otherwise be sent to slaughter given greater value and being sold as a veal or beef product and not be wasted.
Brian: And so that's why you've just released some standards for producing dairy veal to try and address these issues around bobby calves etc.
Melina: Yeah, so obviously the RSPCA is interested in giving value to an animal that would otherwise be considered worthless and a waste product. So we've developed approved farming scheme standards for dairy veal calves and they're very much written for from the welfare of the calf perspective, so what does the calf need, when it's being reared for a meat product, and one of the important things from day one is that it receives sufficient colostrum. So that's the first milk that's released from the mother, because that colostrum contains all the antibodies that the calf is going to need to lead a healthy life. Over the next little while. After colostrum feeding. Another important thing is to keep calves in groups rather than on their own. A common practice is to initially raise a young calf alone, either in a hutch or in pens within a shed. And the main reason that's done is to prevent disease and to monitor feeding and drinking of that animal. But there's sufficient research certainly from an animal welfare perspective that, you know, if given the choice that calf will prefer to be with mates rather than on its own. And if managed appropriately, then doesn't need to be a health concern related to that. So it's perfectly possible to raise calves in groups from day one, and continue to have them in groups and eventually on pasture, if that's part of the production system to raise a healthy happy calf.
Brian: And is that how it's done with the female calves? At the moment?
Melina: Female calves indeed may initially be on their own and then raised in groups and eventually go on to pasture. Yeah, so that's a pretty common system for female calves as well. Yeah, so and obviously being raised in groups in a pen and a shed initially before they're, while they're still drinking milk and starting to eat solids. It's also important to keep those animals entertained in a way. So we're talking about enrichment, making sure that they have you know, something that maybe even something like a ball or a brush to, you know, rub themselves against and, and those sorts of things all. So, in terms of actually feeding the calf, a lot of calf rearers, as they're called, might use bucket feeding. So, they put the milk that the calf receives in a bucket and then expect the calf to drink from that. But we all know that the natural sort of suckling behaviour that calves have to suckle from a teat. That's not going to be satisfied if you give it a bucket. So one of the requirements of our standards is to make sure that they're fed via teat rather than via bucket, which is incredibly important.
Brian: So they're all as you say, it's all coming from an animal welfare perspective. That's right.
Melina: Yeah. basically looking at, you know, what the calf would do in a natural environment when it's with its mother, and what its preferences are, and bringing all those things together to make sure that they have those opportunities under the approved farming scheme.
Brian: It sounds like a whole lot better life for these baby calves under that sort of regime.
Melina: It's definitely a whole lot better than being thrown on a truck and sent to an abattoir. When you're five days old.
Brian: Yes, that's true. So how long calves raised for veal production?
Melina: So if a bobby calf were to be raised for veal, we're talking about probably six to eight month old animal weighing around 150 kilos or a bit more. So basically, what that means is that a five day old animal is being raised and cared for until they're about eight months old, at which stage they're ready for slaughter. And that's the, you know, high value veal product or rose veal, sometimes it's called as well. That's what consumers would see in the supermarket if they're interested in purchasing that. But it does mean that for those months, we've given that animal a good quality of life a life worth living rather than a wasted life.
Brian: And is it only dairy cattle that is used for veal in Australia was other cattle used for veal in Australia currently.
Melina: Now usually, when you go to the supermarket and buy a product, more often than not, that would be from a younger beef breed or beef animal rather than a dairy animal.
Brian: Now, there's been a lot of press around dairy farmers, I guess doing it tough in the last couple of years has been, you know, milk price wars and all this sort of stuff is there an incentive, I guess, on one hand for them to raise other products to help them grow economically, but also, they need to invest in that as well. So, is it a little difficult for them to find the funds to raise these bobby calves?
Melina: That's a tricky thing, as always, isn't it whether you know, the environment, and particularly the environment that the dairy industry finds itself in now is conducive to further investment in that industry? And we're seeing a lot of dairy farmers leave the industry. So you could ask yourself, well, why would they invest when you know the future is so uncertain? But what we do know is that there are plenty of consumers As indeed more and more consumers out there looking for that product that's, you know, satisfies their personal values. And, you know, if you think animal welfare is important, then you're going to be looking for a dairy product that has those animal welfare credentials attached to it. Similar to the way you might find, you know, management of the land or the environment of that of farming, generally an important factor in you look for product that that satisfies those values that you have. So there is always going to be a market now and an increasing market in the future for that value added product. So, in that respect, certainly from a farmer's perspective, if you're into dairying, and you're not doing anything with your bobby calves at the moment then considering raising those calves for veal or sending them off to a calf specialist calf rearer so that they can be raised for veal, or beef, which is an all around more than that's something you should definitely could seriously, because there will be consumers out there looking for that product.
Brian: Yeah, so consumers can play a part in this they can look for these products and also perhaps, pay a little extra for milk if we if we want to go down that road.
Melina: Well, I think, you know, our message has always been that, you know, we have to be prepared to pay more for higher welfare, whether that's a dairy product or pork or an egg or whatever it might be. That's the you know, the reality of farming is that to do things better, sometimes you do have to invest and therefore it costs more. And as a farmer, you don't want to go broke and we want don't want to see farmers go broke even we want to see farmers paid a reasonable price for the product that they produce. And therefore we want to see consumers pay a reasonable price for the product that they purchase. It's only fair.
Brian: The breeds of the cattle for dairy and beef are quite different. Is that an impediment to producing dairy cows for veal?
Melina: Dairy breeds and beef breeds are very different. Obviously, beef breeds have been selectively bred over time to produce muscle, which is the meat that we eat. Whereas dairy cows have been selectively bred over time to produce large volumes of milk. And so why we see sort of scrawny cows with large udders because it's all about milk production. And some of these cows can produce around 7000 litres of milk a year, which is an astronomical amount. And so these are very high producing animals. But when it comes to raising bobby calves for meat, what dairy farmers do, when they're artificially inseminating, like their cows, they decide how many replacement females they need, and therefore when they're artificially inseminating. They will use a dairy breed to inseminate those cows and the females of that project he will go back into the into the dairy herd, whereas all the other cows might be inseminated with a beef breed. So the progeny resulting from that insemination is a dairy beef cross. So it's an animal that because of the beef influence is a lot more muscley and is going to grow much better than a pure dairy breed. So these are the calves that you'd be looking to put into a calf rearing system where the ultimate aim is to have a viable product on the shelf.
Brian: I think the technology behind farming these days is would baffle most people that aren't involved in it. But it's, it sounds like there are ways and means to come up with a solution that will be workable. It seems like it's not an easy fix for an industry that's been going along this route for so long to change and to invest in higher welfare for these calves. But I think knowing that you've got a strategy there and standards in place that that must be something there to help the situation
Melina: Where we're certainly hoping to motivate and incentivize farmers to take on board this idea of rearing their bobby calves doing something with what would normally be considered a waste product. Because what we're talking about here is, you know, sending a five day old calf to an abattoir is really a waste of an animal's life, isn't it? If you can grow that animal out to a much older age, and you have a customer base that appreciates the work and the value of your product and is willing to pay for that, then surely as a dairy farmer, and people involved in the dairy industry, that's what you should be aiming for. And, you know, we as consumers, too, should be looking at ways of supporting these farmers who are trying to do better and trying to improve the welfare of their animals.
Brian: There'll be those that say, or just don’t eat dairy let's, you know, that we shouldn't be doing this at all, and that will improve animal welfare. And you know, should the RSPCA be working in this of area of farming with, you know, talking about animals as by-products, for instance, it would be hard for many people to hear, but I guess you're dealing with the reality is here?
Melina: Yeah, absolutely. You know, that's, it's a totally normal response, you know, why don't we just stop eating something. So, you know, vegetarians and vegans have made that choice. And it's a choice that we respect. But on the other hand, there are many, many people who don't choose to be vegetarians, don't choose to be vegans. And they do choose to eat meat, whether that be every day, or just a few times a week. So, as the RSPCA, we feel that it's important to be involved in animal production in the way animals are raised for food. One way we do that is through the approved farming scheme. But we do that in many, many other ways behind the scenes, talking with industry representative groups and talking with farmers themselves, about the needs of their animals and how to improve animal welfare on a on a continuous basis, and we certainly don't expect change overnight, because like we were talking about earlier, infrastructure changes, for example, cost money. And you may not have that money right now, but at least if you're on that pathway to towards continuous improvement, and your aim is to provide a good quality of life for the animals in your care, then that's what we're asking for. That's really all we're asking for. And while ever animals are farmed for food, we need to be able to say that we're treating them with respect and with dignity.
Brian: Because the alternative if the RSPCA weren't involved is just let them have as bad a life as possible, basically.
Melina: Well, that's the thing, isn't it? If the RSPCA weren't involved, who would be because certainly in Australia, there's no great government involvement in what the animal industries do. We know self-regulation doesn't really work. And we've seen appalling cases of that in the live export trade. So the fact that the RSPCA is involved and having ongoing discussions and seeing change on the ground If it's not through the approved farming scheme, or even if it's just an industry committing to doing something that, you know that first of all, they acknowledge that there's an animal welfare issue, they have a plan to address it. And in you know, within a certain amount of time they've addressed it, and they can move on and deal with other issues. That's what we're asking for that pathway of continuous improvement.
Brian: Which sounds with these standards, like, you're on the way to getting that. So, I mean, that's got to be the first step is to say, this is a solution to this issue. That's quite complex. But we believe there is a way and you're already doing it with the female calves. So let's try this and see if we can improve the lives of must be thousands 10s of thousands of animals that imagine,
Melina: yeah, potentially hundreds of thousands of animals.
Brian: Which would be a great outcome.
Melina: Exactly. And consumers can support it too, by buying higher welfare product.
Brian: Absolutely. Well, thanks, Melina, and thank you for listening. If you would like any more information about today's topic, visit the RSPCA Australia website at rspca.org.au. You can also subscribe to the podcast series at the website or all the usual podcast suspects. I'm Brian Daly and I look forward to your company next time on the RSPCA, Australia humane food podcast.