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The mystery of the missing dairy calves July 1, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
Tags: , , , , ,

Warning: math ahead!

One of the dairy industry’s biggest PR problems is the mystery surrounding what happens to its calves. What do dairy farmers do with their male calves, anyway? They can’t produce milk. Very few are kept for breeding, given the prevalence of artificial insemination, which makes the semen of one desirable bull available to as many as 60,000 cows (!). Many organizations suspicious of livestock farming would have you think they’re delivered into the notoriously cruel hands of veal operations or are simply left to die. For example, these reports from GoVeg.com, Mercy for Animals and even Wikipedia suggest that most dairy calves are used for veal production. But all the dairy farmers I’ve interviewed, and dairy expert Marcia Endres of the University of Minnesota, claim that dairies commonly sell male calves for beef, not veal. No one admitted to just leaving the animals to die, which in any case would be a financially stupid thing for a farmer to do. So are the animal welfare activists right that most unwanted male calves suffer an ignominious end, or do the practices of small, local Minnesota producers who sell their calves for beef more accurately represent the industry?

Unfortunately, I don’t have a completely airtight answer to this question. The most straightforward way to resolve it would be to see how many male calves are born every year, and how many of those go into beef production vs. veal production vs. “disappear,” i.e. are left to die. However, it seems that no one has tracked the number of dairy calves entering beef production since a 1994 study by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The numbers for that study are unlikely to be accurate today, but I’ll note for the sake of completeness that they state that six million dairy calves entered the combined beef and veal industries. Extrapolating from USDA milk production numbers in 1994, those six million calves came from only about 9.4 million dairy cows. Considering that additional female calves were raised to replenish dairy herds, it is extremely unlikely that there would have been any surplus calves to simply leave to die.

Extrapolating from the fragments of more recent data that are available, we can confidently say that at the very least, the majority of male dairy calves are NOT going into veal production. Several websites, including the American Welfare Institute, ATTRA, and Active Farming, quote a number of approximately four million male calves currently born to nine million dairy cows annually. The USDA’s Economic Research Service verifies the nine million number, but I can’t find anything to verify the four million estimate, so let’s use a more conservative – that is, industry-critical – assumption. Of the nine million dairy cows, I’ll assume that 40% are too young to have borne a calf yet. (Cows typically calve for the first time at two years old, and at industrial farms live only about three years after that, bearing one calf per year. So 40% of their lives are non-calf bearing, and 60% are calf-bearing.) That brings the number of cows that are actually bearing calves from nine million to 5.4 million. Of those, half bear female calves, so the number of unwanted male calves could be as low as 2.7 million. Let’s use that number for now.

As I mentioned above, no one is tracking the number of dairy calves that currently enter beef production, but fortunately the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service tracks the number that become veal. In 2009 it was 980,000. Let’s make it easy and call it a million. This number doesn’t include animals that were imported and exported for veal production, but since the USDA stopped separating veal and beef imports and exports in 1989, we can safely assume that those numbers are too small to influence the result significantly. So in the worst case scenario, a million out of the 2.7 million male dairy calves in the US go into veal production, which is about a third of them. And remember that our estimate of 2.7 million calves was conservative; if there are more male calves, then the percent that’s being used for veal will compute out even lower.

Thus we can safely conclude that it is NOT true that most male dairy calves in the US are used for veal. That begs the question whether the remaining two-thirds are used for beef or left to die; but plain old business sense would suggest that farmers are unlikely to waste a resource that could make them a few bucks. My money is on the beef.



1. KO - July 4, 2010

The 9 million figure refers to milking cows and does not include heifers, so removing 40% is unnecessary.

For more information on dairy beef: http://www.extension.umn.edu/dairy/management/dairybeef.htm

Angelique - July 5, 2010

Thanks for the clarification – in that case, the percent that go to veal operations is even smaller.

2. Carrie Oliver - July 7, 2010

There are many beef programs based on Holstein bull calves, they just don’t advertise it as such. A tell-tale sign is if the meat is marketed as being from a single breed. Personally and professionally, I do not understand why the beef isn’t marketed as Holstein; it can be delicious.

With regard to abandoning or killing male calves at birth, the price per head farmers can get in the most recent past is often below the cost of selling them. In other words, rather than receive a check from the auction house, farmers receive a bill.

Angelique - July 7, 2010

Thanks for your comment, Carrie. So it sounds like abandoning/ killing calves at birth could be financially advantageous for farmers in some markets. That’s a shame.

Matt - September 21, 2010

And the other cost that people forget about is feeding that calf to weaning. Either you use milk, which you then cannot sell or you buy milk replacer which is expensive! So your time to feed the calves isn’t paid for and then you loose money at the auction. Not good. That is why we need to re-integrate farms, Old McDonald style and make it benefit that farmer. As it is, it’s much easier to specialize. To raise beef and dairy requires several licenses!

3. Robert - December 29, 2010

No mention of the fact that the majority of male calves at auctions are from the dairy industry and sold for $15 to $20 each. That would contradict the assumption here of the author that a farmer would not want to take the loss of the male calves and therefore not value them for purposes other than veal. On the contrary such low value on the newborn male calf would make them a liability rather than an asset.

4. Jean West-Watanabe - June 16, 2011

This is a great article and one that needed to be written . Thanks for sharing it.

5. jt kong - October 16, 2011

i do not understand the point the author is trying to make. the production of veal is cruel and unthinkable. whether 500,000, 1 million or 10 million calves are submitted to this torture what moral difference does it make?

as to whether male calves are killed for beef or left to die what is the difference? they are still killed regardless of what happens to their bodies afterwards and it is the production of dairy products that requires this early death. perhaps the author is making some kind of twisted malthusian argument that as long as a calves die in satiation of our demand for blood milk and blood meats then this unimaginable horror is justified. the only moral wrong imaginable is that the killing machine is not efficient.

if you want to eat your “pc” beef and dairy products then be assured that ben and jerry and their ilk applaud your complacency. but please don’t mindlessly repeat the meat and dairy industry’s justification (organic or not) that it’s cruelty free. cruelty free dairy is an oxymoron.

thank you

6. melissa - February 23, 2013

the fact that veal happens at all is fucking sick and that begs the question if the male calves aren’t being used for eal then were the fuck are the going?

7. theresa siskind - March 22, 2013

What a load of cow manure. Beef or Veal. Either way these creatures are murdered. This smooth tongued author would have been a hit with Hitler, sanitizing cold blooded acts with mumbo jumbo. You should be ashamed of yourself.

8. shhegde1 - April 19, 2013

In India Beef consumption in minimum and cows are considered sacred ( include male, bull, ox). There are communities who consume beef. I am confused how they manage. there are some solution on http://www.ehow.com/how_5825355_female-calves-male-calves-herd.html. but I do not think Indian farmers have such access. my wonder continues…

9. Yo - May 20, 2013

I believe very simply that no one with beyond a five-year-old level of understanding would assume for more than the same amount of seconds that ANYONE interested in turning a buck would EVER ‘leave’ a quickly-ballooning (but, alas, toughening) ball of meat ‘alone to die’. They should only be so lucky.

In fact, they aren’t hardly ‘left alone’ at all, save for what, I’m sure, comes to be the ‘peaceful downtime’ they spend alone, in the cold, in the dark, being practically held up by the embrace of their cage, dreaming of the moms they only had for a few days, but remember very well. Or, if they’re reaally lucky (seriously), they’ll get a slightly larger pen and actually be able to crap in a few spots before they have no choice but walk in it…and sleep in it. Or, thy’re SUUUPER lucky and have a crate with a slotted floor to let the sh*t drop through…and SO comfy on their tender little hooves! Oh, and that’s for their ENTIRE brief lives…

The poking. The prodding. The singeing and the castrasting (Google search THAT for a wild ride…and prepare to tingle…)

And what exactly, praytell, is the NON-ignominious end for the cows sold for beef? Are we to assume they shoud have pride in the fact that their lives are being taken to serve such a noble race as ourselves?

Or, should we be celebrating the fact that they were blessed with a few more months of poking and emotional neglect? Yes, I said emotional. Cows–baby, adult, male, female–just like their human counterparts, are ALIVE.

Face it, if you have a brain AND a functioning conscience…dairy SUCKS.

10. Ginger - June 13, 2013

I raise dairy calves from birth to about 300 pounds. I treat them like my children. They have clean bedding and they are fed with an electronic milker and get fed every 2 hours. They always get vaccinations and are treated when they are sick. I know almost immediately when they are sick because the computer will tell me when they don’t eat. Not one is treated bad. I talk to all of them everyday and even give some of them hugs (the ones who will let me.) Stop watching the news and go visit a farm. If farm animals were equal to people they would be just as smart and put others on the moon and drive cars. They are not. Go back to the Neanderthals and realize that it is survival of the fittest. Animals are treated better now days than ever before. Wake up people!

Yo - June 14, 2013

Uh, no they’re not.

A very, very, VERY rare exception doesn’t change the rule. I’m glad to hear you make friends with your food and get it to love and trust you before you stab it in the back with your fork. But, over 99% of the farmers in the good ol’ us don’t bother…or couldn’t emotionally.

Distance cushions. So does lobotomizing yourself with a smile on your face and pride in your heart.

Some of us won’t do that. We know we can’t effectively be both friend and foe. Just doesn’t work that way, Ginge.

george - July 8, 2013

ooh, they are not smart. So, lets just go and kill them. What a greta argument. I wonder how many of my acquaintences deserve to live given that my observation is that their IQ is not above 60. May be I should invite you to their place to have them as dinner.

Anne - July 8, 2013

When people need to convince themselves their right they will do whatever it takes to justify their actions. Why not kill all the mentally handicapped since they have low IQs? I hear they taste just like pork… And afterall we are clearly animals.

The only justification for eating meat imp is if it is hunted by an individual ensuring a quick death and taking only what is needed for themselves and family and using every part of the animal. That’s the only sustainable way and somewhat natural way to go about it. Not unlike the First Nations lived.

The current meat market is simply a concentration camp giving animals no way to fight for their survival or run. It’s not a fair fight. It’s not ethical.

I’m a vegetarian and if it was my way everyone would be!

JG - September 14, 2013

Ginger, are those the male calves you treat like children? I’m sure you want female calves to do well since they will be the next milk producers after the current ones are burned out (or whatever the term is). If its males you’re referring to treating like children, then what happens next? Are they sent for beef production? I’m glad your male calves aren’t ending up in veal crates, but what you’re saying just seems weird and still very cruel. Too bad they can’t get their own mother’s milk or get treated like cow children from their cow moms and get cow licks and hugs. Humans just consume too much cow milk and milk products and cow forced secretions. And sorry, NO, animals are not treated better today than ever. Wake up and go visit some big conventional farms – which are giving people lots and lots and lots and LOTS of cheap milk products.

BasiaK - October 5, 2013

I understand the need to look down on another creature so as to justify to yourself that what your doing is okay. That’s what slave holders did in the South. But they were wrong. And so are you, Ginger. Just because a creature doesn’t have the same type of intelligence as you doesn’t negate their right to be treated in a humane way. Taking a baby from is mother is torture for the mother. You are lying to yourself if you don’t think the cows are deeply distressed by it. You are lying to yourself if you think the calves are getting the kind of nurturing from your occasional hug that they need.

You are want to lie to yourself to justify inhumane and crual behavior, go for it. We who recognize the ability of other creatures to feel pain, love, affection, distress… we know you are full of it.

Watch this and tell me what about it is not true. Go for it, I would like to hear what you have to say.


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