Calves – Unwanted By-products | Viva! - The Vegan Charity

Calves – Unwanted By-products

Although cows would naturally suckle their calves for nine months to a year, dairy calves are taken away from their mothers almost immediately – between hours or up to two days of birth – to ensure that as much milk as possible is available for sale (8, 29). The strong bond that is formed between mother and calf in the first few hours after birth makes this enforced separation a very traumatic experience (8, 34). Both mother and calf bellow loudly after separation and respond to each other’s calls by moving toward the sound, with calves able to distinguish their own mother’s calls within 24 hours of birth (34).

The cow attempts to get to her calf and it’s not uncommon that cows break separation fences to be reunited with their calves (42). The intensity of the separation stress is reflected in changed sleeping and feeding behaviour, loss of appetite, increased heart rate and levels of stress hormones (42). However, there are many more issues surrounding calves and calving – currently around eight per cent of all calves are born dead or die within 24 hours whilst only 86 out of every 100 dairy heifers born alive make it to first calving (57). Of those who do, 15 per cent are culled before their second lactation (mainly because of infertility) (57). But the fate of male and female calves is radically different:

Female Calves

Half of the female calves born each year will be pure dairy breed calves who will enter the dairy herd, replacing the 25 per cent of cows who are culled every year because they are worn out (31, 40). They are allowed to suckle from their mothers for the first day of life so that they receive the antibody rich milk, known as colostrum, which cows produce immediately after calving and which is essential for the calves’ immune system (8, 40). Welfare regulations require that each calf must receive colostrum within the first six hours of life (58). However, they are then (usually between 12 hours to two days) separated from their mothers and fed on commercial milk replacer (based on whey or whey protein concentrate, by-product of the manufacture of cheese), either from an artificial teat or from a bucket (8, 40, 58).

Although the main motivation for removing the calves is financial – farmers want to sell as much of the milk as possible – decades of genetic manipulation have resulted in such hugely distorted udders that it is difficult for calves to find and reach the teat. Where this is a problem farmers will remove the calves within a few hours of birth and feed them their mother’s colostrum from a bucket or automatic feeder.

Calves are allowed to be sold when they’re just one week old and this is an immensely stressful event for them causing them many health problems and makes even their ability to digest food decline (58). In the first few weeks of life calves, like all infants, are very susceptible to disease, with up to six per cent of calves born each year dying before one month old (58). Diarrhoea (known as scours in the farming sector) is the main factor contributing to these deaths and is often caused by low-quality or incorrectly prepared milk replacer (40, 58). For this reason, artificially-reared calves are weaned completely on to solid food by five weeks of age (58), much sooner than in the wild.

Under the welfare regulations, calves may be housed in individual stalls or hutches, either indoor or outdoor, until they are eight weeks old but after reaching this age, they have to be group housed (58). However, healthy young calves are very energetic and need to play and socialise with other calves (8) and housing in individual stalls or hutches denies them this vital exercise and social contact. Group housing, which all calves must be moved to after eight weeks of age, allows more natural social behaviour and greater opportunity for exercise and play, but also increases the risk of airborne diseases such as pneumonia – the most common disease of weaned calves (40, 58). Essentially, it is impossible to artificially rear calves in a way which fulfils their natural needs and behaviours without compromising their health.

If the calves are to replace cows on the farm where they are born, they will be turned out to pasture when a few months old, weather permitting, but are kept separate from older animals until at least six months old to reduce the risk of disease (40, 58). They will be inseminated when they are just over one year – many of them when they are only 13-14 months old (59), giving birth to their first calf nine months later. The age of first insemination has been reduced over the years in order to increase profitability of the cows. They will then have 12-72 hours to revel in the joys of motherhood before their calf is taken away and they begin their gruelling life as a milk machine.

Female calves who are surplus to requirements on their birth farm will be sold on to other dairy farms, usually through a livestock market. Calves as young as seven days old may be brought to market and sold but concerns have been raised that calves even younger than that are being sold (60). These young calves may travel several hundred kilometres from farm to market and then to the purchasing farm. This is not only very stressful for the calves but also exposes them to new pathogens which they have no resistance to, leading to an increased risk of disease (58).

The other half of females born each year will be dairy/beef crosses who are sold, again through a livestock market, to be reared for beef in a semi-intensive system (51, 61). These systems involve grazing cattle outside in the summer and housing them during the winter, with slaughter age varying from 15-24 months.

Male Calves

Male calves will never produce milk and therefore are of no use to a dairy farmer. Around half of the male calves born on British dairy farms are pure dairy calves while the other half are dairy/beef crosses (51). All bull calves are removed from their mothers after several hours or maximum two days and housed in stalls or hutches and fed milk replacer just like female calves. Most will also be sold on to semi-intensive beef farms through livestock markets.

Approximately 50 per cent of the pure dairy males will also be reared for beef, but as they will only produce ‘low quality’ beef they are raised in intensive systems (8, 45, 51, 61). After being separated from their mothers they are confined in buildings and yards for most of their lives – which is usually just over one year (8, 45, 61). High mortality rates in these systems are common as it is not financially worthwhile for farmers to strive to keep them alive (8).

The rest of the male calves are either raised for veal or shot shortly after birth – the unwanted byproducts of milk production (51). In 2003 the EU banned the routine burial or burning of animal carcasses on farms and dead male calves are now either collected by the local hunt kennels and fed to the dogs or sent for incineration or rendering (rendering is processing of animal products, specifically whole animal fatty tissue into purified fats like lard or tallow and a protein meal such as meat and bone meal).

The current estimates are that 100,000 to 150,000 bull calves are shot within hours of birth in the UK (62). Viva! filmed the shocking fate of the male calves at farms supplying milk for the confectionary giant Cadbury. For more information and footage go to or our YouTube page

The Veal Industry

All calves raised for veal worldwide are male calves that are by-products of the dairy industry. In many countries such as the USA – from which we import some dairy products – veal crates are still the predominant rearing system (8, 63). These tiny wooden crates are so narrow that the calves cannot turn around for most of their lives, depriving them of exercise and preventing normal muscle development – to keep their flesh supple. They are also fed an iron-deficient diet to produce the anaemic ‘white’ veal prized by gourmets. Calves kept in these conditions suffer from high incidences of infectious disease and develop stereotyped behaviour patterns such as tongue rolling, crate-licking or mutual tongue sucking (7, 8).

Veal crates were banned in the EU in 2007 but veal production (within any rearing system) still requires calves to be separated from their mothers within a day of birth. These calves are then placed in pens or hutches, alone or with several other calves, before they are sold to be reared mostly as ‘rose veal’. They are then slaughtered at around six months of age, although some may be older (64, 65).

The UK also exports calves to the EU to be raised for veal. The live export of veal calves to the EU restarted in 2006 after (due to BSE) a 10 year ban. In 2011 exports were estimated to be around 11,000 calves (per year) (66).

UK Veal Production

Although the veal crate was banned in the UK in 1990 due to the immense cruelty involved, the UK still produces veal. The majority of calves are raised for rose veal. Rose veal production differs from white veal in that calves may only be kept in individual stalls until eight weeks old, rather than the 16-20 weeks for white veal, after which they must be group housed (8, 67). From birth, calves must be fed a diet which contains sufficient iron to avoid anaemia (8, 67) and from two weeks of age they must be provided with a daily ration of fibrous food to allow normal rumen development (rumen is one of a cow’s stomachs).

Rose veal calves are slaughtered at around six to eight months of age (62, 64). The market for veal in the UK remains relatively small but a lot has been invested in boosting it (65, 66). In 2011, 360,355 bull calves were kept for veal or low quality beef (49) and the demand seems to be growing.

According to Sainsbury’s agricultural manager the renewed interest in veal is due to the fact there is a desperate need on dairy farms for an outlet for bull calves. Sainsbury’s is now selling £750,000-worth of veal products a year and the aim is to increase sales to £1million by 2015 (65).

Continental Veal Production

In January 2007 veal crates were banned across the EU and since this date, EU veal production came in line with UK regulations in several areas but still falls below UK standards in others. As in the UK, all calves will be group housed after eight weeks of age, however EU regulations do not provide group housed calves with as much space as UK law requires (63,65). Under EU law, farmers are also not obligated to provide bedding for calves as they are in the UK (63,65). This is despitethe European Commission’s expert Scientific Veterinary Committee’s (SVC) advice in 1995 that “the welfare of calves is very poor when they are kept . . . [with] no bedding or other material to manipulate” (68). And although EU farmers have to ensure calves are fed a nutritionally adequate diet with a minimum daily ration of fibrous food, the quantity of fibrous food is less than in the UK (a minimum of 50g at two weeks to 250g at 20 weeks) (69).

“The best conditions for rearing young calves involve leaving the calf with the mother in a circumstance where the calf can suckle and can subsequently graze and interact with other calves.”

Scientific Veterinary Committee, Animal Welfare Section’s Report on the Welfare of  Calves (68)

No dairy calves are allowed to enjoy these conditions.

Calf Transport

Few dairy calves live out their short life on their birth farm. Most dairy farmers will keep a percentage of female calves born each year to rear as replacements for worn out cows and the rest of the calves will be sold. The majority of these calves will be sent to livestock markets and auctioned off, often involving lengthy journeys to market and on to the purchasing farms. For many unfortunate male calves this means long journeys to veal farms in Belgium, France and the Netherlands.

While all farmed animals suffer during transport, young calves (less than four weeks old) are particularly vulnerable to transport stress due to their underdeveloped immune system and lack of exposure to new environments (70).

‘Shipping fever’ (a term used to describe a range of diseases caused by respiratory viruses) and diarrhoea are common problems in transported calves and contribute significantly to calf deaths (70). Calves less than two weeks old are particularly susceptible and can suffer mortality rates greater than 20 per cent following transport (71). Young calves are also more vulnerable to tissue damage during transport, with many calves (up to 50 per cent) suffering from bruised stifles (knee joints) (71).

“Young calves are not well adapted to cope with transport and marketing, often suffering relatively high rates of morbidity and mortality, both during, and in the few weeks immediately following transport.  Comparatively few normal calves actually die during transport but they succumb, usually within four weeks, to a secondary disease as a consequence of their inability to respond appropriately to transport.”

Research conducted by Dr T Knowles of Bristol University (72)

As for the length of transport, very young calves (that are still unweaned or under the age of 60 days) can be legally transported for nine hours with a rest/feed break of one hour, before another nine hours or more of travel (73). Older calves and cowscan be transported for 14 hours of travel followed by a one hour rest and they may be then transported for a further 14 hours (73).



Most calves raised for dairy and beef are disbudded to prevent the growth of horns and minimise the risk of cattle injuring each other in modern intensive rearing systems (40). This can be done by burning the horn bud with a hot iron (cautery disbudding) or by applying a caustic paste which erodes the horn bud (chemical disbudding) (40, 74). Both these procedures can be legally performed by an unqualified person (75). Cautery disbudding causes severe pain which can last for several hours, with lower-grade pain and sensitivity continuing for at least 24 hours (74). Under the Protection of Animals (Anaesthetics) Act 1954/1964, it can only be performed with the use of a local anaesthetic (75). Chemical disbudding is even more painful and may only be performed on calves in the first week of life, however local anaesthetic is not required (74, 75). The caustic paste can also leak on to surrounding skin or into the eyes, causing immense pain (74). Defra recommends that chemical disbudding should not be used although it is legal (76).


Male calves sold or raised for beef may be castrated to prevent aggression (40). Three methods can be legally used to castrate calves in the UK (40, 75, 76):

  1. A rubber ring or other device can be applied to calves under one week old to restrict the flow of blood to the testicles, which shrivel and drop off within a few weeks. No anaesthetic is required.
  2. The spermatic cords of calves under two months old can be crushed using an instrument similar to pliers (called a burdizzo). No anaesthetic is required.
  3. Surgical castration by a vet, under general anaesthetic, can be performed on calves of any age.

According to the FAWC, all three methods cause acute pain – regardless of the age of the calf (40) and complications and infection at the site of castration are not uncommon.

Supernumerary Teats:

Female calves are commonly born with one or two small, surplus teats on the udder (40). Although not harmful, these ‘supernumerary teats’ are routinely removed from dairy calves because they are ‘unsightly’ and make the animal less saleable, or, if located near the base of a true teat, may interfere with placement of the teat cup during milking (77). Up until three months of age these teats may be cut off using sharp scissors without anaesthetic (40, 75, 76). After this age they must be removed by a veterinary surgeon (40, 75).

All the above are stressful procedures which cause pain and can lead to complications and weaken the immune system.