Humane treatment of dairy calves in the spotlight

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

According to a statement, Milk SA learned with shock and disappointment of the condition of 56 dairy calves destined for slaughter in Albertinia in the Southern Cape when found by the Garden Route SPCA on 31 July 2023. The members of Milk SA are the Milk Producers’ Organisation (MPO) and the SA Milk Processors’ Organisation (SAMPRO).

The Garden Route SPCA released a press statement on Monday that related to the inhumane treatment of 56 newborn dairy calves that were found starving and cold in a derelict abattoir in Albertinia. Some of the calves had already died of exposure and others were extremely weak.

According to a senior inspector with the Garden Route SPCA, Cheri Cooke, some of the calves were so weak from diarrhoea and dehydration that they were unable to rise from the cold floor. Based on their condition it was decided that they had to be euthanised.

“The 56 calves,” she said, “had been collected by the owner from various dairy farms around the Albertinia area. They were destined for slaughter at the Riversdale abattoir. According to the owner, the Riversdale abattoir was unable to slaughter the animals on the day, and a decision was made to keep them in the decommissioned abattoir in Albertinia overnight.

“The owner was aware of the suffering endured by the animals in her care,” Cooke stressed. “She knew that they were hungry and cold, some dead and dying. She remained insistent that the animals would only suffer until the morning, when she could take those that survived the night, to the abattoir.”

Cooke pointed out that this reflected very badly on the dairy industry. Welfare standards and ethics should be incorporated into all their codes, since this kind of incident hurts the industry.

Read more about the recent Milk SA Awards here.

According to a statement Milk SA learned with shock and disappointment of the condition of 56 dairy calves destined for slaughter in Albertinia when found by the Garden Route SPCA on 31 July 2023.
According to a statement, Milk SA learned with shock and disappointment of the condition of 56 dairy calves destined for slaughter in Albertinia when found by the Garden Route SPCA on 31 July 2023.

The industry on welfare

According to the statement by Milk SA, the Dairy Standard Agency (DSA) – a fellow company of Milk SA in the organised dairy industry – had been in contact with the SPCA to ascertain the facts surrounding the incident and to offer its support to the SPCA in this matter.

“We wish to thank the Garden Route SPCA for their swift and firm intervention.”

The risk of inhumane handling of animals in general and of calves specifically, is a risk that was identified by Milk SA and which has been receiving attention through the relevant projects of Milk SA, stressed Dr Mark Chimes, manager of the Animal Health and Welfare Programme of Milk SA.

“The production of calves, surplus to replacement needs, is an unavoidable feature of dairy farming and must be dealt with responsibly and acceptably. Specific prohibitions and guidelines are in place to minimise the risks and promote the welfare of calves. Through a process of regulations, standards, guidelines and education, Milk SA has been endeavouring to ensure that dairy calves are housed, treated and transported in a humane manner that promotes animal welfare.”

He pointed out that Milk SA was a co-author of the SABS National Standard for the Welfare of Dairy Cattle (SANS 1694:2018), which was widely promoted among industry role-players. This document addresses the management of and provision for dairy calves in detail. In addition, the organised dairy industry through DSA, has issued the Code of Practice for Milk Producers since 2013, which also addresses the welfare of dairy animals, including calves.

“It needs to be emphasised that the majority of dairy producers care greatly for their animals and adhere to animal welfare standards. Unfortunately, Milk SA does not have authority over persons purchasing dairy calves. However, the welfare of dairy calves does not end at the farm gate. As a result, Milk SA has been encouraging dairy producers to only sell their calves to trustworthy and responsible calf buyers that adhere to certain minimum standards. Therefore, we strongly recommend the use of a written agreement between producer and buyer that stipulates the conditions under which calves are to be transported and kept.”

The role of organised agriculture

Milk SA is a member of the National Animal Health Forum (NAHF) and the Livestock Welfare Coordinating Committee (LWCC). MPO is also a member of the latter. The main objective of LWCC is to act proactively to promote the humane and responsible handling of production livestock. Therefore, LWCC also works closely with the SPCA as required.

Dr Chimes has been in discussions with SPCA, LWCC, NAHF, the Abattoir Association and SABS over the past few months in an effort to improve and coordinate the various standards with regard to the welfare of dairy cattle.

In addition, the DSA audits dairy farms to ensure their compliance with food safety, product quality, public health, animal welfare and environmental standards on behalf of certain milk processing companies. Unfortunately, these audits are not compulsory for dairy farms, as this is a voluntary initiative of DSA.

The voluntary SABS standard, SANS 1694: 2018 “The welfare of dairy cattle”, clearly states that dairy calves shall be monitored so that temperature and atmospheric conditions do not adversely affect the welfare of dairy calves. Calves should also be fed milk or a milk replacer at least twice a day and they should have constant access to clean drinking water. The standards also dictate that dairy calves shall not be transported unless they are at least ten days old.

According to regulations in terms of the Meat Safety Act of 2000 (Act No 40 of 2000), calves may not be held at the abattoir for more than 48 hours and in the case of unweaned calves under the age of three months, feeding must be provided with milk or milk substitute within 12 hours. The Meat Inspection Manual prescribes that no person shall slaughter a calf unless it is at least 21 days old and is in a well-nourished condition.

“An incident such as this,” Dr Chimes concluded, “does untold harm to the dairy industry and clouds all the hard work that the entire dairy industry has put into promoting animal health and welfare.”

For more information, contact Dr Chimes on 074 510 7316 or – Izak Hofmeyr, Plaas Media

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