Nearly 30,000 calves were slaughtered last year after they reached ten days of age, according to RTÉ’s Ear to the Ground.
The national broadcaster’s flagship farming show revealed that last spring approximately 1.5 million dairy calves were born on Irish farms – but about half of those or 750,000 were male calves.
Many were sold into the beef sector while nearly 200,000 of the bull calves were exported live for veal production.
The huge numbers of unwanted male calves born in Ireland are one of the unintended consequences of the major push to expand the nation’s profitable dairy herd with the end of EU quotas in 2015.
The RTÉ programme shines a spotlight on the welfare of the male calves who are often euthanised at birth in other countries like New Zealand and the UK.
The programme highlights how the calves in a small number of farms are fed milk but also hay from birth to cut costs even though it is not digestible to their systems until they reach four weeks of age.
In Ear to the Ground, veterinarian Bill Cashman explained how Ireland has changed from having a dairy herd which could use male calves for beef to a much more heavily selectively bred dairy herd which breeds male offspring not suitable for beef production.
“It's inevitable the male offspring are no good for beef and they become inherently worthless.
"The farmer just cannot afford to spend time with them and if any welfare is going to be compromised they will be the first."
Farmer Colm O’Leary, who helps run his family farm near Blarney in Co Cork, milks 240 cows who gave birth to 90 male calves last spring.
The programme reveals that under regulation all calves must be cared for on the farm for a minimum of ten days but when the time period was reached he said he had no choice but to send 22 male calves to slaughter.
“We have sent some calves to the abattoir at two weeks of age because there isn’t a market. We don’t like doing it as an industry.
"We like to feel every animal is productively used and also that our animals have a life worth living.
“I’m really proud of the quality of the care I give to my cows. When you slaughter a bull calf at two weeks of age it’s hard to feel that that was a life worth living.”
He added: “I would make more money if I euthanised every calf at birth but I don’t want to do that and I won’t do that.”
In the programme Dr Pat Dillon from Teagasc said the welfare of surplus male calves wasn’t considered ten years ago when the food harvest for 2020 was being planned a decade ago.
“We didn’t consider the calves as an issue at that stage. But that was ten years ago.
“At the time the big priority was who was going to process the milk, would there be enough cows to produce the extra milk, where was the extra land coming from.
"We never envisaged probably the expansion that came to be honest.”
Euthanasia of male calves at birth happens in other countries including the UK but Dr Dillon said he doesn't believe euthanasia at birth is good practice on dairy farms from an ethical point of view.
Irish dairy products are perceived to be a very high standard and from family farms where the welfare of calves are very high and we shouldn't jeopardise that.
The programme says priority is given to the valuable female calves of the farm over the almost worthless male counterparts who aren’t give the same level of care and treatment because of their lesser value.
Vet Bill Cashman said this practice could be kinder to the young animal.
“It’s either put the animals to sleep at birth and at least it doesn’t suffer anymore or have hundreds or maybe thousands of calf have a malingering death of either ill health or no treatment because it simply doesn’t pay to do it.”
Dr Laura Boyle from Teagasc said a small proportion of farms feed new-born calves hay along with a feed of milk during the ten days they are required to keep them on the farm.
“Calves cannot digest hay until four weeks of age,” she said.
The programme also said the live transport of hundreds of thousands of male dairy calves from Ireland every year is also a welfare concern.