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What happens to bobby calves?

Article ID: 87
Last updated: 02 May, 2017
Revision: 13
Views: 121108

For cows to produce milk, they have to give birth to a calf. Most calves are separated from their mother within twelve hours of birth to reduce the risk of disease transmission to the calf, and most do not stay on the farm for long.

The term ‘bobby calves’ refers to newborn calves that are less than 30 days old and not with their mothers. Essentially, they are surplus to dairy industry requirements as they are not required for the milking herd. This applies to all bull calves (males) and about one quarter of heifer calves (females) born each year. And, each year, around 450,000 of these bobby calves are destined for slaughter.

Some calves will be reared for veal and about three quarters of the heifers will become replacements for adult milk-producing cows. Heifer calves may also be reared and then exported to dairy farms overseas.

Bobby calves destined for slaughter are housed together and fed colostrum, milk or milk replacer, usually only once a day. Bobby calves, because of their low value, often do not get the same standard of housing, cleanliness, care or attention as the valuable replacement heifers or the calves being reared for veal. For their health and welfare, bobby calves should be fed at least twice a day and be housed in sheltered, clean and dry environments with room to lie down on suitable bedding.

Transport requirements for bobby calves state that they must be at least five days old before they can be transported to the abattoir. Because they are so young, bobby calves have the following specific animal welfare issues when they are being transported to slaughter:

  • Like all young animals, they have underdeveloped ‘following’ behaviour, which means that they do not stay together as a group and move to where they are supposed to go. This makes moving and loading/unloading difficult and can lead to rough handling.
  • They are too young to handle the stress, motion and length of transport.
  • During transport and at calf sales, they are exposed to the elements, are not provided with bedding and often have little room to lie down.
  • They are too young to be without milk for extended times.

Calves should be handled humanely at all times so they do not become injured or distressed. This means no rough handling, prodding, use of dogs or electric prodders.

Once at the abattoir, young bobby calves are penned (usually overnight) to await slaughter first thing in the morning. All this time they will not have access to liquid feed, they will not be provided with bedding and they will be without their mothers.

Products from processed bobby calves include young veal for human consumption, valuable hides for leather, calf rennet for cheese making, and byproducts for the pharmaceutical industry.

The RSPCA believes that bobby calves should be at least 10 days old and be fed at least four hours before being transported. Transport to the abattoir should be no more than 10 hours and in trucks that have protection from the elements, bedding and enough room for all calves to lie down.

To avoid or reduce the welfare concerns relating to bobby calves, the RSPCA position is that if bobby calves cannot be euthanased on farm (to avoid the welfare issues associated with handling and transport), they should be at least 10 days old before being transported off farm and then slaughtered within 12 hours of last feed.

Raising excess dairy calves for veal is one way in which the value of an animal that would otherwise be destined for slaughter at five days old can be increased. By increasing their value and providing an alternative market, there is real potential to improve the welfare of bobby calves.

This website provides general information which must not be relied upon or regarded as a substitute for specific professional advice, including veterinary advice. We make no warranties that the website is accurate or suitable for a person's unique circumstances and provide the website on the basis that all persons accessing the website responsibly assess the relevance and accuracy of its content.
Attached files
file PP_B2_Welfare_of_bobby_calves_on_farm.pdf (71 kb)
file PP_B1_Welfare_of_bobby_calves_at_pick-up_points_and_sales.pdf (74 kb)
file PP_G2_Welfare_of_bobby_calves_at_abattoirs.pdf (66 kb)
file PP F4 Transportation of bobby calves.pdf (70 kb)

Also read
document What is the RSPCA doing about transportation of farm animals?
document RSPCA Policy B4 Farm animal husbandry and management
document RSPCA Policy F4 Transportation of bobby calves
document What is calving induction?
document Why are cattle dehorned and is it painful?
document Why are the tails of dairy cows docked?
document Why do dairy cows become lame?
document What is mastitis in dairy cows?
document What is veal?
document Does the RSPCA have animal welfare standards for dairy production?
document Permanently housed cows – An animal welfare issue?
document Does the RSPCA have animal welfare standards for dairy veal?
document Why are calves separated from their mother in the dairy industry?
document Is group housing preferable to individual housing of dairy calves?
document How do young calves cope with transport?
document How much milk should dairy calves be fed?
document Why is colostrum feeding important for calves?

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Permanently housed cows – An animal welfare issue?     What is calving induction?