Leading dairy and beef industry organisations have joined forces with UK supermarkets and animal welfarists to try to find solutions to the problem of the dairy industry's black and white bull calves that will make the export market redundant.
The Beyond Calf Exports Stakeholders Forum is seeking to find realistic and economically viable alternatives that will benefit the UK beef industry, calf breeders and also calf welfare.
The forum, set up following an initiative by Compassion in World Farming and the RSPCA, is also reviewing dairy cow breeding. As well as improving both welfare and commercial management to give a more solid economic base for dairy farming, the aim is to develop a better type of calf for the beef sector.
Three working groups have been established by the forum. One, chaired by Robert Forster, chief executive the National Beef Association, is examining market opportunities for black and white bull beef; another, chaired by Mary Mead of the British Friesian Breeders Club, is looking at overcoming the barriers to the development of the more sustainable cow; the third, chaired by Professor John Webster, is considering the animal welfare implications of the various options.
"We want to encourage self-sufficiency in the beef industry by ensuring that as many of black and white bull calves as possible are reared and made available to the UK beef industry, which is still importing up to 300,000 tonnes of beef a year," said Forster.
"We seek to make more breeders, rearers, processors and retailers aware of the advantages of drawing more of these calves into the UK's beef systems and of allowing them to make a direct contribution to increases in UK farm income and more work for the UK economy.
"This can be done by encouraging more dairy farmers to offer more calves to domestic buyers and making it easier for domestically based calf rearers to compete with exporters so that more of these calves are finished, and then processed, within the UK."
Mead said that the poor fertility and lack of calvings in some of today's cows gave dairy farmers few opportunities to put cows to beef bulls, since their breeding policy is dominated by the need to breed replacement heifers. The working group chaired by Mead is to focus on desirable genetic attributes rather than the advantages of one breed over another.
"The forthcoming change in the national genetic index (PLI) which will put greater emphasis on type and health traits, will help but will not necessarily result in better calf conformation," she said.
"Cross breeding would be the quickest way to produce a calf more suited to beef production but will only appeal to some. In the end it is all about economics. Better prices for well graded finished cattle would lead to better prices for better quality calves in the first instance and farmers would react accordingly."
Professor Webster, Emeritus professor of Animal Husbandry at the University of Bristol, said "The resumption of the export trade has restored a market for Holstein-Friesian bull calves animals, but one that may perpetuate rearing practices that are incompatible with our responsibility to provide a reasonable quality of life for these sentient animals."
"The aim of this forum is to explore all possible approaches to improving the welfare of the dairy bull calf, which range from the breeding of animals more suitable to conventional beef production, through to the development of improved husbandry systems for production of intensive beef and veal that minimise stresses associated with long-distance transport, improper feeding and inadequate housing."