Report Synopsis

Cow Calf Contact: Dairy’s Ethical Future?

Dairy farming’s social licence - its ‘right’ to be practiced - is challenged by the issues of surplus calf management and cow calf separation. Although the UK industry has effectively banned the euthanasia of healthy calves there remain difficulties in integrating dairy beef and bull calves into the red meat supply chain. While the industry has put significant effort into the bull calf issue, there is a growing public concern about the widespread practice of separating cows and calves. These social licence challenges may be dairy specific, but all industries that involve animals are being forced to acknowledge and address their own unique issues, which provides opportunities for cross- sector and cross-industry learning.

This study looked at the opportunities for dairy farms to transition to cow calf contact (CCC) systems through visiting farms and research stations. The farms ranged from micro-dairies selling their own branded produce to larger scale businesses selling milk direct to a processor for no added value. Some practiced dam rearing, others had foster systems, and the dairy management itself included robots, conventional parlours, and once a day, two in three, twice a day, and robot milking.

Visiting these farms showed that CCC farming can be viable across different systems, but it needs careful consideration of management and necessary investment. Further research is needed both in an academic and a farm setting.

CCC is not a silver bullet solution to dairy’s social licence challenge. There will still be practices flagged as problematic and the industry will need to constantly adapt and improve to survive. Furthermore, CCC farming cannot rely on the practice alone to give it social licence and high welfare status; there has to be a focus on maintaining good core standards of dairy farming.

Surprising though it may seem, there are significant parallels between dairy farming’s social licence challenges and those faced by the racing industry. Dairy can learn from racing the importance of being proactive in marketing animals exiting the sector through taking financial and cultural ownership of the issue.

Anna's report summary video can be viewed on the Nuffield Farming YouTube Channel.

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