Supermarkets have identified the culling of bull calves at birth as a red flag for losing customer confidence. So what are the alternatives? Tim Field reports

Customer confidence is being lost by the culling of bull calves at birth. Happily, modern development and past traditions are offering alternatives. Tim Field discusses the alternatives to culling bull calves.

For more on farming, read clutching at straw. Once an inconvenient by-product, straw is now used for everything from animal fodder to fuel – and demand is rising fast.


A cup of tea or bowl of cereal simply isn’t the same without a glug of the white stuff to wash it down. Heaven forbid that the children should swipe the final drop before I’ve secured my daily ration. British dairy farmers do a superb job of keeping us in milk for all 12 months of the year, enabled by a spread of calving through the seasons. However, autumn is the busiest calving window, triggering lactation and the next milking cycle.

Generally, a heifer calf is sought after from cows with favourable and milky attributes, so she can be brought on as a replacement for any retired from the herd. With the aggressive and notoriously bad-tempered black-and-white bulls too much to take on, artificial insemination is often the preferred route and the job is done having selected the desirable traits from a semen catalogue.

Leaving nature to do the rest, roughly 50% of these end up as black-and-white bull calves and – as also determined by nature – they are useless at producing milk. With extreme dairy breed genetics that yield more than 8,000 litres of milk per lactation, the Holstein dairy cow is a milk machine but most of her skin and bone brothers are redundant in the dairy herd. Sadly, the cost and effort to carry them through and fatten them up as beef simply doesn’t stack up. As a result, some modern dairy farming has a tainted image where bull calves are known to be culled at birth and discarded; their sole purpose to induce milk production in their mother.

At this summer’s Agricology Open Day at the Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester, we heard David Main, a professor of production animal health and welfare, explain that this simply shouldn’t be an option any more. Along with the over-use of antibiotics, Professor Main explained that supermarkets have identified the culling of bull calves at birth as a red flag for losing customer confidence. Forget veal crates and battery hens, this waste of life is the new animal welfare issue to provoke action.


Thankfully, there are alternative options derived from both modern developments and past traditions that can help maintain the dairy industry’s integrity, its efficiency and combat this wastefulness. When selecting desirable traits from a bull in the genetics catalogue, sexed semen is one option. In the past, dairy farmers have been hesitant to shell out the high cost of sexed semen due to issues of reliability, however, improvements in methodology make it an ever more tempting option. Whereas for the less extreme dairy breeds – such as Friesians and Ayrshires – dairy bull calves are brought on through a beef enterprise thus investing in sexed semen is less of a concern. The bullocks of these breeds are worth fattening as their stocky conformation is distinctly different to their lanky, skinny Holstein cousins.

A dairy does not need every heifer calf as a replacement and only the best cows will be crossed with a dairy bull. However, all cows need a calf to come back into lactation. The opportunity to produce a more valuable calf for a beef unit is where the Hereford beef breed made its mark in history. A Hereford x Friesian is a traditional suckler cow with a trademark white face. She’s milky from the dairy and stocky from the beef.

At Daylesford, all calves – bar pedigree Friesian heifers – are taken into the beef enterprise. Hereford x Friesian cows are crossed back to a native beef bull, yielding a calf with hybrid vigour that races away on mother’s milkiness and father’s ability to convert grass to beef. A Gloucester bull on the heifers gives a slighter frame with less issues at calving and supports a rare breed when sold as Gloucester beef. Phil the head stockman’s selective breeding with South Devon and Aberdeen Angus bulls across the rest gives a beautifully performing suckler herd.

With recent trends in veganism and dietary intolerances discouraging a growing number from drinking milk, I believe there are few dairy farms that would willingly risk their milk contract where bull calves aren’t suitably utilised. I recall an interesting conversation with one of our cheese makers, a vegetarian, who was content working in the creamery because she knew the cows were treated well and the bull calves were not wasted. Cruelly, I made the conversation somewhat more awkward when I asked about her egg sandwich, knowing the fate of male chicks.

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