Three out of four Irish dairy farmers are willing to support the establishment of a sexed semen laboratory in Ireland, in order to reduce the number of unwanted male dairy calves, according to a survey carried out by NUI Galway and Teagasc.
The survey result reflects farmers’ worries about markets for the increasing number of dairy calves not required as replacements in the herd.
Last December, allegations of killing of unwanted dairy bull calves on farms surfaced nationally.
These were dismissed by Agriculture Minister Michael Creed, who said the number of male dairy calves disposed at knackeries decreased in 2019.
He emphasised the low death rate of only 2.5% of all calves on Irish farms, before six weeks old, and the good health reputation of Irish calves exported to the Netherlands and Spain.
He also introduced the Calf Investment Scheme to help farmers manage increasing dairy calf numbers. There was a strong farmer response to the scheme.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic has now damaged veal markets to the extent that farmers fear calf exports could decrease, creating extra pressure on heavily stocked dairy farms.
In response, Minister Creed increased the Calf Investment Scheme budget from €1.5m to €4m.
Using sexed semen for breeding dairy replacements (including 100% sexed semen if using Jersey genetics) is one of the recommended ways of reducing unwanted dairy calves, so it is not surprising that 75% of the dairy farmers in the NUI Galway/Teagasc survey said they would be willing to contribute a few euros per dairy cow for establishment of a sexed semen laboratory in Ireland,
Such a laboratory would help in the work to increase the conception rates with sexed semen, which are lower than with conventional semen.
The survey, carried out earlier this year, was funded by the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine, to explore farmers’ breeding decisions, calf marketing strategies, and attitudes in relation to the dairy industry and animal welfare.
The 450 farmers who responded to the online survey are larger in scale than the typical Irish dairy farm, having an average of 132 dairy cows.
Most respondents said that the major stumbling block to more widespread use of sexed semen is the low conception rate.
Price, and the genetic quality of sexed semen, were further down the pecking order, when it came to reasons for the low uptake.
Asked why they would agree to pay a small fee for establishment of a sexed semen laboratory in Ireland, the main reasons given were:
* to increase availability of sexed semen from top EBI dairy bulls.
* the potential reduction of calves that are killed early.
* and an improvement in the Irish dairy industry’s reputation.
Farmers in the survey revealed that a small proportion of calves (4%) were sold for processing.
In March, the intake per week of young veal animals in Irish beef processing plants reached its highest weekly intake on record, nearly 4,000.
Respondents’ calf mortality rate averaged 4%, 80% said they have expanded their calf housing since milk quota abolition.
Over two fifths of respondents (41%) indicated that they can house all of their calves at any one time.
Just one tenth of those surveyed reported that they could house only half or less of their calves at any one time.