Dairy giant Fonterra is implementing new rules to stop its suppliers from killing freshly born “bobby calves” on the farm.
All calves must now be given a “useful” life under a change to the co-op’s terms of supply, which comes into effect in June 2023.
More than two million bobby calves are born on farms every year, as a by-product of the dairy process. The babies are typically only conceived so their mothers can produce milk for human consumption.
“As many as we can, we find a home for, but there is always and there will always be a position for the four-day-old bobby calf. They live an awesome four days and then they're down to the processors,” explains Paul Everest, a dairy farmer in Mid-Canterbury.
Fonterra has been working towards the change for a year and says it must be addressed to “remain competitive in the market”.
“We can’t afford to be complacent as consumers here and around the world become more interested in how their food is produced. Other countries and companies have already introduced policies and assurance schemes that provide consumer guarantees about the on-farm treatment of calves,” said Anne Douglas, the Group Director of Fonterra’s Farm Source Programme.
Calves are usually only culled by farmers when they are deemed to be of low value to the works. But from June 1 this year, Fonterra farmers can only euthanise them when “there are humane reasons” to do so.
All calves must now enter what the co-op calls a “value stream”, such as being raised for beef or being slaughtered for veal or dog food.
It means there could be pressure on meat works this year as processors try to cope with the influx.
The Meat Industry Association is expecting an extra 150,000 to 250,000 calves, on top of the 1.84 million they already slaughter annually.
“It is likely to be a two-to-three-week period where calves are at a seasonal peak, and we are working with the dairy sector to ensure that the farmers understand that there could be delays in picking up those calves, and they have appropriate systems in place to deal with them,” said Richard McColl, one of the association’s representatives.
However, some feel the whole practice is abhorrent. There was public outrage back in 2015 when activists released footage of calves being separated from their mothers shortly after their birth, only to be thrown onto trucks for slaughter.
“I think it shows that the social licence of the dairy industry is strained and they're trying to find a way to navigate that,” said Emma Brodie, a campaign manager at animal activist group SAFE.
“We were quite taken aback by the type of language that they're using to describe calves, ensuring they want to have a ‘useful’ life, when these are living, breathing sentient animals.”
But farmers say they do care. Those like Paul Everest in Mid-Canterbury use innovative tools like selective breeding, put many into beef rearing and give the remainder the best four days they can.
“They come inside, we give them hot warm colostrum within the first couple of hours of being there,” he said.
“We pick up calves all through the night, all through the day, especially when it's wet and cold, so that they come in, they're sheltered, they're warm, they're dry, there's milk at the ready, and they basically live the dream.”
The debate is sure to continue as Fonterra makes the change; the two sides diametrically opposed.
“The dairy industry kills nearly two million new born calves every year,” argues Emma Brodie of SAFE, on the one side.
“Nobody does this if they're not in with the heart,” says Everest, on the other.
“I'd speak for all New Zealand farmers, when we say we love the animals.”
Either way, the consumer will have the final say as to whether the change is enough.