Bobby calves, mostly males under 2 weeks of age, are often considered to be low-value products of the dairy industry. Bega has the only saleyard on the far south coast selling bobbies and this marketplace, if poorly regulated and managed, has long been recognised as a risk to the local industry and particularly Bega Cheese's reputation.
At the start of this intervention, the state and handling of many calves being sold was questionable. Some farmers in the far south coast had been carelessly using the saleyard as a place for ridding themselves of unwanted calves. There had also been recent visits by Animal Liberation activists who covertly videoed animals at the yards and subsequently posted video clips of 'calf mistreatment' on YouTube.
There is a weekly bobby sale each Tuesday in Bega as the herds calve year round. All calves are brought in utes, trailers and trucks on the morning of the sale and auctioned at 11am. Most are purchased for slaughter by a single meat buyer (Rogers and Summerell - Bernbrook) and these are loaded onto a truck shortly after the sale and taken to a Melbourne abattoir where they are offloaded under cover and provided with water. On most occasions the abattoir will not commence killing the calves until 5 am the morning after the sale. This potentially means that many Bega calves, even if fed early on the morning of the sale, will be slaughtered over 24 hours since their last feed.
In addition to the calves purchased for slaughter at the yards, the meat buyer involved also buys calves from further up the coast and collects these direct from farms on Monday before the Bega sale. These bobbies are off-loaded on a nearby farm where they are cared for under cover overnight. These calves are reloaded into a multideck stock truck shortly before collecting the calves purchased at the Bega sale.
The Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals - Cattle (2004), section 5.11.4 states that:
'All calves presented for sale should:
The Bobby Calf NVD requires the person in charge to declare within the Livestock Production Assurance (LPA) box within the form that 'the calves in this consignment are at least in their 5th day of life, fit and strong enough to be transported for sale or slaughter and have been fed milk or milk replacer on the farm within 6 hours of transport.'
The dairy industry's recommendations for the management of bobby calves basically reflect the requirements outlined above.
One problem, however, with such welfare codes is that adherence is not mandatory. Inspectors under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (POCTAA) may prosecute a cruelty offence against a bobby calf presented at the saleyard, but in the absence of evidence of gross mistreatment, a moribund or dead calf, and veterinary investigative assistance, such prosecutions are unlikely.
Although the LPA rules suggest that falsely signing a declaration and moving stock unfit for transport could result in the withdrawal of accreditation, they are reluctant to pursue this penalty in practice.
This state of affairs leaves bobby calves in an invidious position where their health and welfare is often compromised. This issue is visible to the public at saleyards. Such calves having fallen through the cracks of the legal and welfare system bring the attendant risk of giving the dairy industry a poor reputation.
This report uses the Bega bobby calf yards as a case study to examine what can be achieved with bobby calf welfare if there is sufficient motivation, persistence and community goodwill to make improvements within an essentially unregulated environment.
The 11/3/08 was my first visit of many to the calf yards with a view to smoothing the introduction of the Dairy Assurance Score declarations as these were required for heifer calves from the end of March. I also undertook to examine compliance with the industry welfare code of practice following a discussion with farm services staff at Bega Cheese.
A month after starting the intervention, local industry participants concerned about the state of affairs at the yards and the risk that inhumane treatment and failure to comply with the code of practice posed to the industry, met for the first time. This meeting was convened by Bega Cheese. Participants included local dairy farmers, agents, stock buyers, saleyard manager, RSPCA inspector and NSW Police Rural Crime Investigator. At this meeting the meat buyer commented that Jersey calves presented at the sale were often underweight and that this often resulted in them not being paid. He stated that the abattoir did not pay for calves that dressed under 9.9 kg. He also asserted that there were regular deaths during transport to the abattoir and an allowance for a 1% mortality rate was routinely made.
In early May 2008 the bobby calf welfare interest group met again to discuss progress. There was general agreement that good progress had been made and that the intervention should continue.
In the early months of the intervention the local Rural Crime Investigator put an effort in to check NVD and transportation paperwork and the RSPCA inspector also made several visits to the yards.
When I attended the yards, calves were inspected as they were unloaded to ensure that NLIS tags were fitted, navels were dry and hooves worn. NVDs and DAS declarations were also examined. Carriers were requested to take calves home if they were obviously ill, underage or underweight when examined at unloading. No calves suspected of being underweight were weighed at the yards.
In most situations where there was some doubt as to the age of the calf the vendor was given the benefit of the doubt and was not asked to take the calf home. Special care was needed on wet days when examining umbilical cords or where the cords had been sucked by other calves. In many cases examination of the feet for wear and other signs of maturation were helpful in differentiation.
Where calves were left at the yards before I arrived, or dropped off while I examined another load, these calves were examined in their pens during the course of the morning and prior to sale. Examinations became easier and faster over time as skills developed and fewer questionable calves were delivered.
Sick calves became more obvious after being penned for some time, as without stimulation, they usually became depressed. Many would leave telltale deposits of loose faeces on the concrete floor of the pens. Suspect calves were examined for dehydration and occasionally for a fever and to check lung sounds.
Despite industry requirements, at the start of the intervention a number of the calves presented for sale were non-compliant. I began collecting records on 11/3/08. However, not all visits in the first year were adequately recorded. Hence some early data is absent. Over time I developed a recording sheet for offences and other issues detected at the bobby calf yards. All calves noted to be underage at the sale or sent home were recorded, as were sick calves ill enough to warrant the sending of an advisory letter to the vendor.
After the initial flurry of effort and support it was mostly left to the District Vet and the saleyard agent's staff to monitor the calves at the sale. Some of these staff willingly, and others begrudgingly, made an effort to refuse entry to the yards of calves that were clearly underweight or underage.
On occasion particularly unwell calves that I believed were unfit to travel were marked with spraymark for buyers attention and avoidance. I occasionally requested the meat buyer not bid on a marked calf or in some instances he decided himself not to buy individual calves. This saved on the expense of buying a calf that was unlikely to make it alive to the abattoir. Unsold calves, a new issue, created problems for the agents as they either had to dispose of the calves or have them taken home after the sale.
In concert with the saleyard activities, a number of articles were published in the Bega Cheese Newsletter about the bobby calf intervention, what was being done, what was expected and how things were progressing.
Where I found sick or underage calves in the yards and the owner was not present, I sent advisory letters to the vendor reminding them of their responsibilities and the potential adverse outcomes for the calves and the industry. Excerpts of relevant codes of practice accompanied these letters. A copy of these letters was also sent to Bega Cheese farm services for their attention. A typical advisory letter appears in Appendix I. In many instances the farm services officer would speak to the vendor concerned about the transgressions in the letter.
After starting the inspections, it was clear that many calves did not fit the industry's code of practice. It also quickly became apparent that some dairy farmers did not welcome the scrutiny at the yards. Some became hostile and argumentative when challenged over the state of their calves, especially when approached by phone after detection in the yards. Some annoyed vendors began to handle calves roughly at unloading at the yards. Most of these farmers were not challenged by me at the time, for fear of provoking an incident. These people were spoken to later by Bega Cheese staff.
On a few occasions farmers were observed to approach the yards with a load of calves and if they saw I was present would turn around and not deliver the calves. On a few occasions during peak calving times some trailers were overloaded. This resulted in some calves being trampled. One such calf developed posterior paralysis and was subsequently euthanased at the yards.
Over a period of 6 to 12 months most of these demonstrations of farmer displeasure and anger subsided. Incidents of overcrowding and rough handling also declined over the first 12 months.
From 2008 to end 2011 there was a steady decrease in the number of calves sold through the yards. The decline in average number of calves sold during weeks of DV attendance over this 4 year period is shown in Figure 2 and suggests that around half the number sold in 2008 were sold in 2011.
The drop in the number of calves marketed is also reflected in observations made by the slaughter calf buyer. He stated that at times in 2008 they carted over 400 calves/week to Melbourne, whereas in 2010 it was around 250 calves/week and in 2011 it had dropped further to 150 to 200 calves/week.
The number of calves suspected of being under 5 days of age at saleyard presentation has declined significantly over the last 2 years (Figure 3). At one sale 11 suspects provided by 6 vendors were detected. However, it was more usual to find only one calf brought in by one vendor. In the first year, several vendors severed the cord of newborn calves at the belly in an effort to disguise their age.
Just 6 weeks into the intervention, in May 2008, the meat buyer stated that the problem of underweight calves had improved considerably with only 6 out of 2500 calves not making acceptable slaughter weight during that period. Although I have no supporting data, I currently believe that it is rare for a calf under 23 kg to be brought to the saleyards.
However, Figure 3 suggests that although the issue of underweight calves may have resolved relatively quickly, it took a considerable period of time for improvements in the delivery of underage calves. Only in years 3 and 4 of the intervention was a marked improvement noted with underage calves then being presented rarely.
Figure 4 shows the changes in the average rate of presentation of sick calves to the saleyard and the average number of vendors per sale involved. On casual examination it appears that there has been little improvement in the numbers of sick calves supplied to the yards. Most of the sick calves warranting an advisory letter were affected by neonatal scours. On only one occasion was a vendor threatened with investigation by the RSPCA if they presented another seriously ill calf to the saleyards.
Despite the statistics suggesting no improvement in the rate of presentation of sick calves, recent reports from the slaughter buyer are that their calf mortality rate in transit over the last year is almost zero.
The steady decline in calf numbers either sold through the Bega yards (Figure 2) or trucked for slaughter each year to 50% of the level in 2008, means that significantly fewer calves are being subjected to long distance transport, exposure to saleyards and abattoirs. This inherently entails a significant improvement in calf welfare within the local industry.
Reasons for the decline in numbers may involve a range of factors. Although there are no data on the breed distribution, anecdotal evidence suggests that fewer Jersey calves are now being kept for sale and only a handful of Jerseys appear at the weekly sale now. One of the messages conveyed to farmers through extension material was that if calves were less than 23 kg in weight they should not be sent to the yards. Some producers started using bathroom scales to measure the weight of calves with borderline eligibility after this time. It was also suggested to Jersey breeders that as their calves were only fetching as little as $8 that it was hardly worthwhile tagging and carting them to sale. If not already doing so many began destroying the Jersey bull calves soon after birth. A few who found this idea unpalatable began to fortify the milk being fed to calves to increase the weight of the calves quickly so that they could meet the code requirements. One farmer commented that his Jersey calves born at 19kg and fed on fresh milk and 100 g of powdered milk are achieving 30kg by 5 days of age. My personal observations on calves so fed, is that they are a good size, well muscled and vigorous.
I also suspect that producers with sickly calves are now also destroying these rather than bringing them into the sale. However, industry conditions in the last 2 years have also conspired to reduce the number of calves available for slaughter. More are now being bought direct off farm by beef producers willing to dabble in calf rearing due to the shortage of other replacement stock. The introduction of 'sexed' semen for AI has also allowed a few farmers to reduce the proportion of male calves born.
The rapid improvement in relation to underweight calves suggests that as such calves were of marginal economic value to the vendors, it was relatively easy for them to change to destroying them or holding them back from sale.
However, it took 2 years before the intervention showed a significant improvement in the percentage of underage calves brought to the market (Figure 3). The data in this area is reliable as identifying underage calves is a more objective process than say identifying 'sick' calves where interpretation of severity of disease is more subjective and inclined to vary over time.
Some vendors persisted in presenting underage calves, especially if they were Holsteins with heavy birth weights. Such calves were considered valuable, but on reoffending vendors properties there was often a higher probability of the calves becoming ill or dying before reaching 5 days of age. Thus by selling them young they were more assured of being able to sell a live calf.
Although the data does not show any significant improvement in the rate of presentation of sick calves to the saleyard, I believe these data to be unreliable.
I further believe that as the intervention progressed letters regarding illness in calves have been more readily sent to offenders. Only very obvious and severe cases received advisory letters initially, but as these serious cases declined, less severe cases of illness were followed up by letters to keep the momentum going.
Feedback from the meat buyer suggests that the mortality rate at the abattoir has dropped from around 1% to close to zero. He has also received compliments from Victorian DPI inspectors regarding the good condition of the calves from Bega on arrival at the abattoir when compared with calves sourced locally from Victoria.
The Victorian calves are usually picked up direct off-farm three or four times per week, often without the owner being present. There is also competition amongst the calf buyers which is absent from the south coast of NSW. This results in many underage and ill calves being taken for slaughter, as if one driver refuses to take non-compliant calves, another will be keen to get the business. Despite the comparatively low distances involved, the mortality rate for Victorian calves at the abattoir is around 0.6% (Peter Bath, pers comm.).
Research has been done to determine the acceptable duration of transport that bobby calves can withstand to reach an abattoir in an acceptable state. It was shown that a 12 hour journey and up to 30 hours of fasting has no detrimental effect on the metabolism of healthy, clinically normal calves (Mellor, 2000). Cave et al. (2005) suggests that the further calves have to be transported, the higher the mortality rate. The journey from Bega to Melbourne is approximately 600km and based on her predictions the mortality rate between August-October should range from 0.75%-1.5%. As mentioned, the current figure is near 0% for this buyer which reflects the better quality of calves bought and care in transit. The truck involved at Bega is well protected to reduce wind chill and has floors covered with dry sawdust.
This saleyard/bobby calf welfare issue reflects more broadly on many producers, particularly those employing staff to manage calves. A poor job is often tolerated and as a consequence many calves can be lost. On some properties known to be repeat offenders at the yards, mortality rates of over 20% occur in the heifer calves kept for rearing. This is reflective of the attention given to calf rearing within the broader industry. Unfortunately, many producers are not aware that poor calf rearing practices affect the lifetime productivity of the cattle concerned.
Being at the yards also provides the opportunity to compliment some producers on the presentation and quality of their calves. I have also been able to make observations and provide feedback on suitability of transport vehicles, stock density and handling of the calves. Advice on calf rearing and preventive medicine is also provided to farmers at the saleyards.
This ongoing intervention has essentially shown that a persistent targeted, non-regulatory approach involving bluff and bravado, with the illusion of regulatory power, can result in significant improvements in welfare. Farmers came to accept that the intervention was serious and persistent and responded over time when there was a body of people and organisations willing to step up and work to improve the situation. However, this was not likely to have happened if it was left to the LHPA or DV working alone.
It is my hope that the introduction in the near future of the mandatory provisions within the Australian Standards and Guidelines for the Welfare of Animals- Land Transport of Livestock (2008) and recent NLIS recording refinements for bobby calves will make interventions such as these far simpler and allow more ready involvement of animal welfare inspectors in livestock-related matters.
I wish to thank Roger Went, from Bega Cheese farm services, for his ongoing support in this intervention and for his powers of persuasion within the local dairy farming community.
Dear Dairy Farmer
Re: Calves unfit for marketing at Bega Sale Yards
At the bobby calf sale on dd/mm/yyyy, I was disappointed to see a pen of five Friesian bull calves of yours at the sale. One of the calves was depressed, dehydrated and scouring. The remainder all showed signs of moderate dehydration.
You should be aware that this presentation of calves is in breach of industry guidelines, national code of practice and the LPA rules.
Calf buyers, saleyard management, the local stock agents, Bega Cheese, Police, RSPCA and the LHPA are all committed to 'cleaning up' the marketing of calves through these saleyards. Incidents like this cause suffering to the calves, produce considerable disquiet and may give ammunition to animal rights organisations wanting to target the dairy industry. Many of the calves presented in this condition will also not survive the trip to the abattoir in Melbourne.
In future it would be appreciated if only calves suitable for transport and sale are sent to the bobby calf market. Please see the attached information so that you and your employees can understand what is expected for your future compliance.
Cc: Bega Cheese farm advisor
3 Attachments: Relevant sections of LPA rules and the National Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals at Saleyards, and the Dairy Welfare guidelines 'Bobby Calves - fit for sale?'