Dairy farmers have until the end of next year to prove they are no longer killing male calves on-farm under new rules which will apply to nearly all UK farms from January, the Guardian has learned.
The number of male calves being killed straight after birth, known as the “dirty secret” among farmers, has prompted outrage from animal welfare groups and many within the farming sector.
A Guardian investigation in 2018 estimated that 95,000 were being killed every year within a few days of birth. The lack of viable markets for bull calves and public apathy towards consuming British rosé veal had meant it was sometimes cheaper to kill calves rather than rear them.
However, a rise in the use of sexed semen, which dramatically reduces the number of male calves born, and new retailer policies to help farmers find markets for their calves is leading to a fall in animals being killed.
Around 60,000 male calves are now killed on-farm every year, according to industry estimates, which is around 15% of the bull calves born on dairy farms. But this figure is expected to drop significantly with new rules restricting the killing of calves coming into force from next year.
All farms covered by the Red Tractor standards (the scheme applies to 95% of milk produced in the UK) will have to have written breeding and management policies in place and maintain data on all births and deaths, according to new rules due to be announced imminently. The new standards state farms will be banned from the “routine euthanasia of calves”.
The rules come into force on 1 January, but a spokesperson for Red Tractor told the Guardian this week that farmers would have until the end of next year to meet the standards.
A steady increase in the use of sexed semen since the early 1990s has recently seen sales jumping from 18% in 2017 to more than 50% of total semen sales in 2020. Industry figures expect it to completely replace conventional semen within five years.
“It’s been a gamechanger,” said Andrew Suddes, a farm consultant for Promar. “Farmers are able to produce heifer [female] calves more easily. You can now produce the replacement heifers that you need with sexed semen, and use beef semen on the rest [of the cows] to produce calves that can be better kept and reared for beef.”
Although sexed semen increases costs for farmers, it can reduce the proportion of male calves being born to less than 10%.
A number of retailers have already banned the killing of male dairy calves or their export overseas from farms in their supply chains. Retailers including Sainsbury’s, Co-op, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Morrisons now have calf schemes in place to help ensure rearing dairy bull calves is economically viable for farmers.
In the case of Morrisons, farmers are required to rear the calves to a certain weight until 15–40 days of age, at which point they will be bought by a beef-rearing company. The retailer also committed to buying calves born on farms under bovine tuberculosis restrictions, which leave farmers with few markets to sell to.