To make milk, cows have to give birth once a year. We don’t often like to discuss the uncomfortable reality of what happens to many of these calves. Re: journalist Baz Macdonald explores what the life of many of our calves looks like, and if there is a better way forward. 

This article is part of Milk and Money, a documentary and article series about the true cost of dairy in Aotearoa. You can watch it now on Re: and TVNZ OnDemand

A by-product of every glass of milk we drink is a dead baby cow.

It may seem callous to consider a calf a byproduct, but through the lens of dairy business that is what they are. Milk is the primary product, and to produce that milk, cows have to have a baby every year.

In 2020, 4.9 million dairy calves were born in New Zealand. Exact numbers are not collected on the outcome of each calf, but NZ dairy industry lobby organisation DairyNZ estimate that of those:

  • 1.3 million (27 percent) were raised to maturity for beef. Beef animals are generally slaughtered when they reach maturity at around one and half years old.
  • 1.4 million (28 percent) were female cows kept by dairy farmers to replace the 20 to 30 percent of older cows who will be slaughtered every year when they are no longer deemed productive.
  • 196,000 (4 percent) were born dead or die shortly after birth.
  • 2 million were bobby calves, who are killed around a week after birth.

As you can see, the largest group of dairy calves were the bobbies. A bobby is a calf younger than 30 days old that there is no financial incentive to raise - generally because they are male and so can’t be used for milking. These calves are killed within days or weeks of being born.

Last year, the dairy industry produced two million bobbies. 245,000 (5 percent) were euthanized on-farm, and 1.7 million (35 percent) were sent to meat processing plants at around four days old.

The industry has spent the last ten years grappling with the proper treatment of these bobby calves. But now, with environmental and consumer pressure, our dairy and beef industries are making moves that might mean every calf born will get a chance at life.

A herd of dairy calves being raised to maturity

The history of bobby calves

In 2014, animal rights activist group Farmwatch began an investigation into bobby treatment in Waikato, setting up cameras at farm gates across the region during calving season.

What they saw were days-old calves left baking in the sun for hours in cages on the road side. 

Eventually the bobby collection truck arrived, and footage showed drivers picking up the calves and literally throwing them into the back of the truck.

Farmwatch then set up hidden cameras at the destination of many of these calves - a dog food factory in central Waikato. There they captured footage of a worker hitting and kicking the calves.  

Segments of this footage were aired in a Sunday segment in 2015. The footage caused outrage across the country.

George Moss has been a dairy farmer in Waikato for nearly forty years. He says the response of the public was immediate and fierce.

“The public was understandably outraged,” he says. “I can tell you how outraged they were. I happened to be visiting somebody in Waikato Hospital with a dairy industry shirt on. I was verbally abused and confronted twice, you know? Yeah, it wasn't good.”     

It wasn’t just the public who were shaken by the exposé, but the industry itself. 

“My reaction as a dairy farmer, particularly the stuff in the pet food factory, was that it was absolutely awful,” says George. “It was just hideous. It was embarrassing. It was shocking. There was absolutely no defense of that.”

“And then, of course, that triggered a whole lot of people looking at the pens on the side of roads, and all those sorts of things, and created the industry revisiting the whole lot.”

It was not the first time the public had demanded farmers change their practices around dairy calves. The exposé came just after the industry had banned a process called inductions, where pregnant cows would have their labour induced early so that the mother was synchronised with the calving cycle of the rest of the herd. 

Calves were usually born dead in this process, and those who weren’t were immediately euthanized. In 2010 SAFE reported that 40 percent of dairy farmers were inducing an estimated 200,000 calves a year. The practice was phased out and eventually banned in 2015.

Following the Farmwatch investigation into the treatment of bobby calves, in 2016 the Ministry for Primary Industries released amendments to the Animal Welfare Act 1999, including requirements that calves be able to walk themselves on to the transport, maximum durations in the truck, and a system that made each person in the calves’ journey accountable for their treatment.

But the bobby practice itself has still remained. 

The short life of a bobby calf

Most bobby calves are collected within 24 hours of being born and taken to a calf shed, which is a covered enclosure, typically with wood chips on the ground to keep them dry and warm.

A common criticism of dairy is that calves are removed from their mothers so soon after birth. There are some farmers who leave the calves with their mothers for longer, but the regular practice is to remove them less than 24 hours after birth.

Re: Journalist Baz Macdonald in a calf shed with two bobby calves

George says there are a few good reasons for this separation. The first is weather. Dairy calves are bred smaller than beef calves, and so they are more susceptible to sickness or death from bad weather. 

Another issue is that over generations of this separation, dairy cows have become quite poor mothers.

“A significant percentage of calves don't get fed by their mothers,” George says. “The assumption is that all births are perfect, that calves get up and drink off the cow, and the cow loves the calf. We've seen it's not always the case. Some of those mothers will absolutely beat the stuffing out of those calves - they'll kill them. They sometimes beat the stuffing out of other cows' calves too.”

Animal rights activist Lynley Tulloch runs a bobby rescue farm in Northland. She believes these issues of bad mothering are cultural, not genetic, and that if a few generations of mothers and calves were kept together this behaviour would be remedied.

But, even so, the issue would remain that calves within the dairy industry will need to be removed eventually - either after a few days if they were being sent as bobbies to the freezing works, or a few weeks if they were to be sent away to be raised for beef. George says the longer you leave the calves and mothers together, the more traumatic this is.

Two recently collected new-born bobby calves

After being removed, the bobbies will live in the calf shed for a legal minimum of four days - but usually more like five or six days. At which point the collection truck arrives.

The new laws have much more stringent requirements for how calves are picked up by these trucks, and the state they need to be in for collection. They also cannot cross the Cook Strait in a boat anymore, and can only be transported a maximum of 12 hours.

Ultimately, farmers sell them to a meatworks facility, where they are processed into meat and pelts.

Farmers receive relatively little when they sell bobby calves to meatworks. One New Zealand pet food company lists its prices as $15 for a calf over 35kg, to only $1 for a calf 17-24kg. This small return is why many farmers are so eager to move them off-farm as quickly as possible, because they can cost more than this in the milk they are drinking. 

Which is partly why they get sent to the meat-processing facility so young.

The exception to this life cycle are the 200,000 bobbies a year that are shot on-farm shortly after birth - commonly called day one kills. 

DairyNZ says most of these day one kills are due to farmers not having access to a meatworking facility or transport service. 

George does not perform day one kills unless the animal is deformed or severely ill. But he says he can understand why someone might make that decision based on the extra costs of bobbies for an uncertain return. The milk, colostrum (nutrient-rich first milk produced after birth), and time they require don’t necessarily get made back by the sale of the bobbies.

“In terms of labor, in terms of hassle, probably even in terms of economic return, you could argue that that is not a purely logical response… I know at times we've treated calves and got them right when it makes absolutely no economic sense.”

“You're certainly not making massive money, if you're making any money.”

For George, the decision to even keep bobbies to four days is an ethical one.

“I guess by doing what we do, I like to think - and the public might have a different view - we're showing that animal as much respect as possible. And trying to make its life - albeit short - as meaningful as possible. To make sure it's not a purely wasted life.”

The bobby revolution

After a decade of adjusting the treatment of bobbies, a conversation has emerged: is there a way to dairy that doesn’t produce bobbies at all?

This has been explored in the past, with solutions such as using hormones to induce lactation in cows without impregnation. However, research into this in the 70s and 80s found it often led to hormone imbalances in the milk itself, and some terrible side effects for the cows - including reduced fertility, internal cyst development, and chronic vaginal prolapsing.   

DairyNZ senior solutions and development manager Helen Thoday says the bobby practice has continued partly as a matter of habit.

“I think that's just how farms are set up, which is to deal with four-day-old calves leaving the farm,” Helen says. “I think four days works for them, because that's how it's always been.”

But now, due in part to environmental and consumer pressures, DairyNZ and Beef + Lamb NZ have begun co-developing a plan to transition the dairy industry away from bobbies.

In the next twenty years, Helen says they hope to remove bobbies from New Zealand dairying completely.

This will be done in two phases. The first phase is to explore currently available opportunities to either produce fewer bobbies to begin with, or find options that would allow us to raise these calves instead of sending them for slaughter around day four of their lives.

Understandably, female cows are much more valuable in the dairy industry than males. One way to reduce bobbies is to have fewer male calves born in the first place. This is done through sexed semen - a process in which a lab literally sorts the male-producing sperm from the female. They then fill a straw with female-only sperm for farmers to artificially inseminate their cows with.

The clearest opportunity for phasing out bobbies, however, is to have them raised to maturity for beef - allowing them to live around 18 months longer. Currently 30 percent of beef animals in New Zealand come from the dairy industry, but Helen says there is room for this percentage to grow.

However, New Zealand literally does not have space for more cows and increasing our cow numbers would mean increasing our greenhouse gas emissions - which both the dairy and beef industry have committed to decreasing.

To keep the numbers stable, bobbies raised for beef will have to replace cows the beef industry currently breeds.

Beef + Lamb genetics general manager Dan Brier says the beef industry is totally on board for this work, but there are a few obstacles to overcome.

The first is finding the balance between the needs of the dairy and beef industries in the genetics of those calves. 

The beef industry prefers larger animals, because they produce more premium cuts of meat. Whereas the dairy industry likes to produce smaller animals because they put less strain on their mother’s body, and are less energy-intensive for a cow to produce - meaning the cow has more energy to produce milk.

Right now, Beef + Lamb are running field experiments to try and find the best balance of calf genetics for both industries.

This initiative may actually lead to fewer emissions, because it will allow the beef industry to reduce the number of cows they keep just for breeding. It may also lessen other environmental impacts such as erosion because the lighter dairy cows will be less straining on soils.

The other major challenge is ensuring that not only is there a market for this extra dairy beef, but one that emphasises value over volume.

Dairy beef doesn’t produce premium cuts like wagyu or angus, so it has typically been sold as processed products like mince or burger patties. A danger of transitioning more of the industry to dairy beef is it may halter our ability to lean into value over volume and enjoy the environmental benefits of that. 

“If we're going to look after our environment, we can't just be making more volume,” Dan says. “We can't just pump out more mince. If it is mince, it needs to be mince that is grass fed and has a really excellent environmental story that someone in the United States, China or Germany is prepared to pay more for.”

A bobby-less Aotearoa

Helen believes that by spending the next ten years taking advantage of opportunities currently available, we can significantly reduce the number of bobby calves in New Zealand. In the ten years following, she believes we can get the number to zero through techniques and technologies that will be researched this decade.

It’s not clear what these avenues will be, she says, but based on current understanding it may be techniques such as longer lactation cycles - with cows having a baby every two years, instead of every year. It could even be us revisiting hormone treatments to produce milk without calves at all.

“I think sometimes research that happened 20 years ago is worth looking at again, and not just disregarding. Because other things may have changed that means you'd get a different outcome.”

The decisions we pursue will be based on what aligns with the values of both New Zealand and our customers, Helen says. 

The truth is, moving away from bobby practices could have been done decades ago. While we have moved 30 percent of dairy calves into the beef industry, there hasn’t been a real drive to make much change beyond that. 

The real driver now is an ethical one. Consumers are getting more and more engaged in the processes behind their food and the industry knows that in order to maintain those customers, we need to be moving towards the most ethical versions of products like beef and milk possible.

“If we want to sell high-value products, it's got to be good for our people, good for the environment, and good for our animals,” Dan says. “I think it would probably be very short sighted to say that people hadn't had these sorts of conversations [about reducing bobbies] for the last 30 years, or 50 years. But now the time is right in terms of what the market wants from us.”

“Externalities like greenhouse gases are making people have another think about their farm system again. Reducing bobbies is a bit of a low-hanging fruit in terms of opportunities for farmers to be more sustainable.”

For the farmers, the consumers, and of course the animals, this bobby free-vision of the future of dairy is likely one we can all feel good about. But there is still work to be done to get there. 

Want to know more about New Zealand’s dairy industry? Our six-part documentary Milk and Money is available to watch now on Re: and TVNZ OnDemand.

How Aotearoa built its dairy empire on billions of dollars of debt | Milk and Money | Episode 1

The impact of dairy on our freshwater | Milk and Money | Episode 2

NZ doubled our dairy cows in 30 years, but it took 600% more fertiliser | Milk and Money | Episode 3

Why our dairy cows produce more emissions than our cars | Milk and Money | Episode 4

Our soil quality has been declining for decades. Dairy is making it worse | Milk and Money | Episode 5

Why we may not need cows to make milk | Milk and Money | Episode 6