The Irish word for road is ‘Bothar’ and the true meaning is ‘the cow way’, which serves to highlight the fact that farming, along with cows, are culturally engrained in our heritage.
How we care for livestock is something we are brought up with and a deep sense of pride is felt every day we work with cows.
So, as an Irish dairy farmer, I was infuriated when I read an article last week in The Guardian which suggested we have a major issue with calf rearing, but which also suggested calf euthanasia as an option for dairy farmers.
We see the anti-farming brigade target us day in day out and it is imperative the public knows the facts.
It was suggested that Ireland will have as many as 800,000 unwanted calves in 2020. I have looked into the breakdown of the 2019 dairy calving figures and 403,397 dairy-sired male calves were born. These male calves certainly are not unwanted. Almost 200,000 calves were exported in 2019 with our main markets being Spain and the Netherlands.
I recently met with Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed, who had just returned from a visit to the Netherlands, and he assured me that ‘Dutch calf importers are extremely happy with the quality of dairy calves they receive from Ireland’.
While I am aware some people do not agree with live exports, as an island nation, it is an integral part of our agricultural system and the reality is standards are being improved every year.
Department of Agriculture officials will be accompanying shipments during the busy periods, with space per calf on trucks also being increased. Ireland also has a thriving beef industry which may have been financially challenged in 2019, but thankfully is well able to absorb the 670,000 beef calves born in Irish dairy herds.
There is a suggestion it may be kinder to shoot male dairy calves, but the reality is calf mortality rates have never been better in Ireland, with the national average being 4.5 per cent at six weeks of age which is among the very best in Europe.
The mortality rates on our farm stand at 0 per cent mortality at birth and 1.1 per cent at 28 days.
There seems to be a lot of hearsay discussion about calf euthanasia in Ireland, when the reality is neither farmers nor the public want to see it happen.
Factually, when we look at my milk purchasing contract, it clearly states ‘the on-farm slaughter of healthy calves is strictly prohibited’ and our milk co-operative has also adopted a zero tolerance policy towards on-farm calf welfare issues.
Further to this, Board Bia audits Irish farms every 18 months and they must continually pass an audit in order to supply milk. Bord Bia have also adopted a zero tolerance policy towards calf euthanasia.
The reality is information is widely available to the public and it is vital they are not influenced by mere opinion articles. Calf euthanasia is not being discussed as an option for the Irish dairy industry, nor is there a need to consider it as an option.
Standards are improving every year on farms and will continue to do so as we embrace new research. As with every other farmer, we take great pride in the food we produce, but more importantly care for the livestock we work with.
Informing the public on how we manage dairy systems is something we are always happy to do in order to communicate the quality of sustainable food we produce every year.