Calf conundrum: Is enforcement of Fonterra’s new policy on euthanasia enough to quell consumer dairy concerns?

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

Will Fonterra’s new policy banning non-essential euthanasia in ‘bobby’ calves be enough to address consumer concerns?
Will Fonterra’s new policy banning non-essential euthanasia in ‘bobby’ calves be enough to address consumer concerns?

Related tags Fonterra calves dairy

Fonterra’s new policy banning non-essential euthanasia in so-called ‘bobby’ calves has been hailed as a milestone of sorts for dairy sustainability and animal ethics - but will this be enough to address consumer concerns about industry workings?

Last year, Fonterra announced its new policy requiring all of its dairy suppliers to limit the practice of slaughtering non-replacement or ‘bobby’ calves - essentially surplus animals below 30 days of age that provide no financial value to the dairy industry due to being unsuitable or unrequired in the milking process - other than for absolutely necessary reasons.

These ‘bobby’ calves obtained the name from being sold for one bob - a shilling in former British currency - decades ago in the 1930s. Many of these are male but not required as many dairy farmers use direct bull semen insemination for their dairy cows without the natural mating process, but there are also many female bobby calves that emerge as surplus for a variety of reasons.

Debate surrounding the handling of these animals has been rife in the industry for many years, particularly in major dairy producer New Zealand which saw enormous consumer lashback back in 2015 after animal rights groups published hidden camera videos showing mistreatment and ‘meaningless’ slaughter at an early age, usually within days of birth.

Fonterra is undoubtedly the biggest dairy co-operative in New Zealand, one of the biggest dairy marekts in the world, so it has wide-ranging impact on the market. Its policy was announced last year to be enforced on 1 June this year - and three months on, feedback from the overall cattle industry and consumer associations have been mixed.

“[Fonterra knows we] can’t afford to be complacent as consumers here and around the world become more interested in how their food is produced,”​ said Anne Douglas, the Group Director of Fonterra’s Farm Source Programme said via a formal statement.

“Other countries and companies have already introduced policies and assurance schemes that provide consumer guarantees about the on-farm treatment of calves.

“Fonterra farmers [must now] ensure all non-replacement calves enter a value stream -either beef, calf-veal or petfood.

“We understand sale options in parts of New Zealand are currently limited, which is why we’re actively collaborating with the wider industry, investing in R&D and exploring long-term solutions such as dairy-beef partnerships and opportunities.”

According to the firm’s 64-page-long Terms of Supply, which FoodNavigator-Asia​ has viewed, this means that a calf can now only be euthanised if this cannot be raised on farm or sold to a third party to be reared, processed for calf meat or as pet food, are suffering in an ‘emergency situation’ or other medical reasons, or to ‘protect its wellbeing’.

These guidelines indirectly mean that some of the onus has fallen onto meat processors, another major part of the cattle industry besides dairy, and the response here has been very mixed.

“[We need] farmers to understnd that there could be delays [on the part of the meat industry] in picking up these calves [as] there is likely a timeframe where these are at a seasonal peak,”​ Meat Industry Association Consultant and spokesman Richard McColl said in a media statement.

“This means that farmers will need to have appropriate systems in place to deal with the calves [during this timeframe].”

Many meat processors have also been working on increasing processing capabilities in order to handle this projected increase in calf availability - but no promises have been laid out in terms of purchasing these bobby calves, which means that any financial liabilities still fall back to farmers.

“We know there will be significantly more bobby calves requiring processing at plants [and we have added capacity] in commitment to support and meet the needs of farmers as best as we can over the course of the season,”​ meat processing firm Alliance GM Murray Behrent told RuralNews NZ​.

“[However], we also need to take care not to compromise lamb or beef processing volumes and have added capacity for these as well to meet the demands of shareholders and suppliers.”

New Zealand is in the midst of its first calving season since the new policy was announced, with the season expected to conclude in October. Reports on differences to bobby calf treatment are highly-anticipated by industry and consumer groups in the country.

Concerns at a higher level

However, early feedback has indicated that consumer groups and animal ethics activists are unlikely to be satisfied with the results of this change, with this discontent running all the way from the dairy industry to the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI).

“The policy does not solve any problems or mean the industry is being more sustainable,”​ Vegan society spokeswoman Claire Insley said via an email statement.

“Previous years saw bobby calves killed within two days of birth on farm - current regulations say they must be a minimum of four days old to transport them anywhere else, and now there are delays of up to five days which means dairy farms are being pushed to their limits.

“Although some meat processors have increased their capacity, there’s only so much they can do and there is currently a waiting list for calves. The havoc is set to worsen next year as other dairy providers prepare to also enact these new policies.”

Animal rights and rescue organisation Starfish Bobby Calf Project Founder Lynley Tulloch added that in 2022 over 1.8 million bobby calves were slaughered, and this number is expected to be the same in 2023.

“The reality of dairy production is deeply problematic in terms of animal welfare - On a very basic level, [dairy] products are made from milk [and] for a cow to produce milk, she must first get pregnant and have a calf,”​ she explained.

“That calf is now surplus to requirements – the milk meant for him (or her) is to be redirected for human consumption and industry profit, [and MPI regulations] allow for these young calves of less than a week old to be transported on trucks for 12 hours, for these to be slaughtered within 24 hours of their last feed on the farm.”

Both suggested that solutions such as plant-based dairy or precision fermentation would be the better choice to reduce these situations - but with the dairy industry being such a major part of New Zealand economy and livelihoods of many farmers, it might be hard to effect such a change at a penny’s drop.

Instead, academics and industry experts have suggested more gradual yet scientific means of reducing bobby calf numbers such as research to increase the viability of these bobby calves as beef cattle, building a veal market for such meat, the use of ‘sexed semen’ to ensure only female calves are born to the dairy sector, or to extend dairy cow lactation periods to reduce the need for pregnancies.

In the event that 2023 bobby calf findings are not as rosy as hoped, perhaps one of these routes would bear further investment or research by dairy industry heavyweights in New Zealand.

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