Historically cattle were 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. Currently the number of cattle in Ireland is 6.5 million, across the beef and dairy sector and just under 2 million were slaughtered in 2020.

Dairy Farms

Calves transported in cramped conditions

In 2019 1.6 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. There is a growing number of zero grazing dairy farms where the cows and calves are never out at pasture and spend their whole lives in a barn. The animal welfare problems in the dairy industry are well known. Directorate-General for International Policies of the European Parliament concluded in 2017 “Dairy cows producing large
quantities of milk have high levels of leg disorders, mastitis and reproductive disorders. The proportion of cows affected by one or more of these disorders is high and the animals live with the poor welfare for a substantial part of their lives.”

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. This is known as ‘snatch calving’ and is meant to make the cow think she has given birth to a stillborn calf. Many calves are even fed colostrum artificially and never get to suckle from their mothers at all. 

Male calves have little value, because the breeds usually aren’t great for beef, but there are more cross breeds being reared now that are more popular with the beef sector. In Ireland thousands of male calves are exported to inhumane veal farms in Europe – 200,000 were exported in 2019. The majority of calves are reared for beef but a growing number is sent to slaughter at 10 days old.

Most female calves will be retained on the farm to replace the older cows but as only a certain number are needed to replenish the herd some are exported, sent to slaughter or reared for beef. 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. Some dairy farms have zero grazing meaning the cows are indoors 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This obviously causes health and welafre issues for the animals and when purchasing dairy products it is impossible to know what system the animal was reared in. Organic farms have better welfare and the cows must spend a determined amount of time grazing outdoors.

Sexed semen is used by some dairy farmers as a way of reducing the number of male calves. However, it is not a solution to the issue because it would just mean more unwanted female calves. The herd cannot keep expanding indefinitely. 

Calf at Foot Dairying

There are some dairy systems where the calf stays with mum for a varying amount of time, normally between three and nine months. These systems are not only better from a welfare point of view but there are also less health issues. Calves that are allowed to suckle from their mothers have faster growth, lower mortality, improved immune systems and they learn social behaviours. There are reduced incidents of mastitis in the mothers and there is no stress of separation, depending on the age of the calf when separation does occur. The older the calf, the lower the stress. Of course there is loss of milk for the farmer but this can be offset by cost and labour savings as there is no need for milk replacer and this is a unique selling point which would attract a greater premium. Unfortunately there are no calf at foot dairy farms in Ireland as yet.

Beef Farms

Housing animals on slatted flooring can lead to lameness and aggression

In 2019 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 2019, around 86,000 weanlings and adult cattle were exported to Europe and countries outside the EU with little in the way of animal welfare legislation.

Calf welfare can be an issue in both dairy and beef sectors as they are very vulnerable and prone to illnesses like pneumonia. In 2019 there were 48,000 on farm calf deaths, under 6 weeks of age, and 30,000 calves were sent to slaughter. There are just too many cattle in Ireland and it is imperative that the herd is reduced, rather than continuing to increase year on year as is the current trend. Many farmers have reduced their herd and actually found it more profitable and of course a lot less labour intensive. There should be more government supports for small farmers who are adopting a more holistic approach to raising animals. Regenerative farming is a growing movement where livestock and nature work together to enhance biodiversity and rebuild soils, creating carbon sinks rather than just expelling methane. 

Sources: https://irishvetjournal.biomedcentral/Articles https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2021.645537/full

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