Historically cattle was bred for both beef and dairy – farms would be mixed. However, over the years certain breeds were developed through selective breeding to produce more milk and certain breeds have been developed to produce more meat at a younger age. So modern dairy farms are separate from beef farms.
In 2018, 1.5 million dairy calves were born in Ireland and milk output reached 7.6 billion litres. The average herd size is 80 cows with the largest being around 300. There are no mega dairies as such in Ireland but the farms with the larger herds are more automated and the cows may spend more time indoors. Most dairy cows in Ireland are pasture reared for most of the year but brought indoors during the winter months.
To produce milk a cow has to first produce a calf. The calves are taken away from the mother shortly or immediately after birth, which can be so stressful for the mother she can be given opioids to calm her.
Male calves have little value, because the breeds usually aren’t great for beef. In Ireland thousands of male calves are exported to inhumane veal farms in Europe – 200,000 were exported in 2019. The calves are also raised for beef or sent to slaughter at 10 days old.
Female calves will be retained on the farm to replace the older cows. A cow will be impregnated at around 15 months old, gestation takes nine months, and the cow will be impregnated again roughly three months later. The cow is milked from the moment the calf is taken away through most of her pregnancy. Dairy cows are sent to slaughter at around six years old.
Cows can now produce 50 – 60 litres of milk during peak lactation and this has taken a toll on the health and wellbeing of the animals. The udders can become engorged and hang heavily which can impair walking and contribute to lameness. Other factors causing lameness include hoof lesions, laminitis and dermatitis. Mastitis is also an issue and has contributed to the overuse of antibiotics.
In 2018 just under 1 million beef calves were born. Cattle are generally pasture reared, with the exception of winter housing. However, there are a growing number of feedlots in Ireland where the cattle spend all or a large chunk of their lives indoors – there are now around 300 feedlots in existence. Many farmers bring their cattle in to ‘finish’ on grain before sending to slaughter or sell to a feedlot for finishing.
Some beef farmers will purchase male dairy calves to breed for beef. Others will breed their own animals. Beef calves stay with their mothers – when you see cows in fields with their calves they will be beef cows.
Winter housing and finishing can cause health issues because the cattle is usually kept on bare slatted flooring and conditions can be cramped. Increased aggression can lead to injuries and lameness.
In 2018, around 75,000 weanlings and adult cattle were exported to Europe and countries outside the EU with little in the way of animal welfare legislation.