What to do with surplus dairy calves? Welfare, economic and ethical considerations

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The major aim of dairy farming is the production of milk, with the sale of calves and cows of much lesser importance. Thus, it is an enterprise that is centred on the female animals. However, the typical male: female sex-ratio of calves born is 50:50 which generates a large number of male calves that are not required on that dairy farm. Additionally, it is estimated that sufficient numbers of replacement females can be produced from 60% of the lactating herd (De Vries et al 2008), which means that some of the female calves born on the farm are also surplus to requirements. What to do with these surplus calves, particularly the large number of male calves, has always been a problem in dairying.
There are a number of possible routes for these calves: they may be euthanized on the farm they were born on. They may be reared on that farm for a few days and then transported for slaughter at an abattoir for hides, pet food or rennet. These calves are known as ‘bobby’ calves in many countries. Calves may also be reared for veal or beef. Calves destined for veal production are transported to rearer units at approximately eight days of age and slaughtered at about 8-10 months of age. Calves reared for beef are typically transported to specialised farms and reared until they reach a mature slaughter-weight at 18 months or more.
The route for each calf varies between countries depending on the dairying system, calf price and the consumer preference for veal or beef. In countries where veal is produced, such as The Netherlands, France and Italy, all surplus calves are used in veal production (Sans and Fontguyon, 2009; EU Stats 2012). However, where there is a viable specialist beef industry and consumers prefer beef to veal, such as in Ireland and the UK, dairy calves may enter the beef rearer system. However, the demand for dairy-bred calves in the beef-rearer market fluctuates according to number of calves available and the capacity of the beef-rearer farms. For instance, in countries with pasture-based dairying systems, such as Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, calving tends to be concentrated in the spring. This means that there is a glut of calves at this time which is more than the beef rearing systems can cope with. Calves may be euthanized on the origin farm soon after birth, or sent for slaughter as bobby calves. At other times of year, they may enter the beef rearing systems. However, in countries such as Sweden and Denmark, with low numbers of specialised beef breed animals, calves from the dairy herd achieve good prices and are reared for beef on specialised farms (FVE, 2017).
There are a number of standpoints to consider when trying to decide what the ‘right’ thing to do with these calves. Firstly there is the ethical viewpoint that encompasses the societal or personal moral values governing actions and outcomes. There is also the issue of animal welfare to consider. Animal welfare involves the health, basic functioning and emotional states of animals, and their ability to live natural lives (Fraser, 2008). There is a important consideration as to whether the animal can achieve a ‘life worth living’ or even ‘a good life’ (FAWC, 2009). There is also the issue of economic sustainability for the farm. The aim of this article is to consider each outcome with respect to these standpoints and include new options and developments.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)45-48
Number of pages4
Issue number1
Early online date3 Jul 2020
Publication statusFirst published - 3 Jul 2020


  • Animal welfare
  • Bobby calves
  • Dairy bull calves


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