Sunday, December 3, 2023

PULPIT: Industry judged on bobby calves

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As dairy farmers work through calving it is time to think about the welfare of calves.
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People who are concerned with the welfare of farmed animals can be divided into two groups.

The first group adopts an animal rights position. These people believe it is immoral to farm animals. To them, animal farming is little different to the human slave trade. 

They argue for the abolition of animal farming and the widespread adoption of a vegan diet. By definition, there is not a single animal farmer on the planet who agrees with their world view.  

When I encounter an animal rights activist I like to point out there is no such thing as a bloodless diet.

Worldwide, it is estimated billions of wild animals are killed each year in arable fields as a consequence of routine practices such as ploughing. 

The suffering inflicted on these wild animals is likely to be far worse than that associated with the slaughter of our livestock, which is carefully regulated and monitored. 

Therefore, it can be reasonably argued, overall animal suffering might in fact be minimised when humans consume a diet of large herbivores such as grass-fed cows.

The second group of people who advocate on behalf of farmed animals adopt a more moderate, animal welfare position. These people accept it is moral to farm animals but advocate for improvements to the lives of the animals involved in our farming systems. 

Because every farmer has, at the very least, an economic interest in the welfare of their animals it is generally easy for farmers to find some common ground with an animal welfare advocate.  

These people are definitely not our enemy and we need to listen to them.

Our practices involving bobby calves are by far the most controversial animal welfare issue in dairy farming.  

Around the world animal rights groups point to the removal from their mothers and the subsequent slaughter of bobby calves as evidence of the immorality of dairy farming.  

Some animal welfare advocates, while accepting the slaughter of farmed animals in general, find the slaughter of very young calves to be a step too far.  

In New Zealand footage of the mistreatment of bobby calves has led to high profile, serious prosecutions under the Animal Welfare Act.

Because of these heightened sensitivities we all need to be especially careful when dealing with all calves on our farms and bobby calves in particular.  

The Dairy Cattle Code of Welfare points out that while bobby calves have only a few days of life before slaughter there is an obligation to manage them to the same standard as every other animal on farm.  

I get very grumpy on my farm if I see calves being unnecessarily pursued around the calving paddock or roughly loaded onto the calf trailer.

We are not running a rodeo.

I don’t like to see the calf trailer overloaded or calves being left too long before being transferred to the calf sheds.  

I don’t like to see the bobby calf area of our calf shed looking worse than the replacement calf area.  

I especially don’t like to see calves being put out for the bobby calf truck if they are in any way compromised. If in doubt, don’t send them.

The good news is that in New Zealand we have been making really great progress as an industry in this area. 

In 2008, 68 bobby calves of every 10,000 transported died before reaching slaughter or were condemned as not fit for human consumption on arrival at the abattoir.

During the subsequent decade this figure has steadily dropped until by 2017 only six bobby calves were dead or condemned on arrival of every 10,000.  

The industry owes a big thank you to every one of you out there who has helped bring about this improvement.  

We all need to keep up the good work to ensure we keep driving that figure down.

We live in a world where the divide between rural and urban people is growing ever wider.  

Things that we take for granted can appear shocking to our city dwelling customers.  

Social media can flash negative images of our industry around the world in minutes, doing us enormous damage. 

Consumers don’t have to buy our milk. There is already a raft of non-dairy alternatives available to them on supermarket shelves. 

In competing with these alternatives, the story behind our products is becoming increasingly relevant.  

When given a choice, why would consumers choose to buy food sourced from animals unless those animals have had a good life?  

Treating our bobby calves well is a very simple way for all of us to contribute to the success of our industry.

Who am I?

Mike Montgomerie is a fifth-generation dairy farmer and Fonterra Shareholders’ Councillor in Cambridge. He is also a lawyer and recently completed his masters degree focusing on environmental and agricultural law at the University of Waikato. Last year he wrote a 25,000 word piece on the ethics and legalities of the bobby calf issue. He is happy to send it to anyone who wants to read it.

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