A pilot on-farm initiative is tackling the key challenges of breeding, rearing and marketing dairy calves.
More than 1.4m calves are born to dairy cows each year. But improving the outcome for around 60,000 dairy bull calves with no market to take them has proved difficult. Now the goal is to open up new opportunities for the dairy sector.
Gwyn Jones, vice chairman of the Ruminant Health and Welfare group, says the solution is to ensure all calves have a value, which is the focus of more than 40 organisations involved in the GB Dairy Calf Strategy 2020-2023.
“For RH&W’s contribution, our pilot project in South Wales involving farmers, breeding companies, processors and rearing specialists aims to link solutions together into a viable, sustainable and profitable system.”
Breeding is the starting point of the strategy, with some block calving herds containing cross cows too small to produce calves for the beef industry. But Red Tractor standards due in 2023 will strengthen the dairy sector’s commitment to rear every calf with care.
“We believe we need to look towards cows which are a minimum 470kg yet still profitable for milk solids production, and early results on this look positive,” explains Mr Jones.
“We also need to ensure calf genetics are suited to the rearing system and end market, and sexed semen is used strategically so calves can be reared efficiently and profitably.”
Another aspect is a viable supply chain for rearing calves. This might involve making use of extra resources like labour and buildings from other sectors such as sheep, or positioning calf rearing as a way of new entrants getting into farming without land.
“As part of this we need high-quality rearing and stockmanship, and there’s scope to reduce mortality and morbidity across the industry in the first 12 weeks so these calves don’t just survive but thrive.”
Bovine tuberculosis is also a barrier. Mr Jones believes more could be done to facilitate movement of calves off farms under TB restrictions, especially in south-west England and Wales.
“TB-restricted calves must be able to move quickly through the system,” he explains. “This brings us back to farms in high-risk areas using sexed semen for replacements, and avoiding use of native breeds which are unsuitable for the intensive indoor production systems used in Approved Finishing Units.”
The last piece of the jigsaw is understanding whether calves can be marketed as high-welfare, high-quality, low carbon beef. Mr Jones says this will go hand-in-hand with improving genetics and will provide a long-term solution to the lack of UK-bred beef products on the market.
“The hope is that once we have the results later this year, the model could provide a template or at least a starting point for other parts of the country,” he says. “The UK dairy industry prides itself on being a pioneer in dairy cattle welfare.
“It is a top priority for the sector, and it’s important to the public as well, so we know this project on sustainable dairy bull calves will offer wide-reaching opportunities to improve reputation as well as profitability.”
The NFU and AHDB are leading a number of activities on sustainable calf rearing in the run up to the 2023 deadline, and have recently hosted a Farmer Forum, available on the AHDB YouTube channel, to help support understanding of the GB Calf Strategy.
Strategy members will also be facilitating the inaugural Great British Calf Week, which takes place from 2-9 February 2022. The week will include a series of online events, each focusing on a different aspect of calf management.
For further details about the pilot calf project, visit www.ruminanthw.org.uk