Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Graham Harvey on the veal trade

My favourite agricultural writer is on Comment is Free today:

There's something distasteful about the news that government minister Lord Rooker is heading a working group whose aim is to end the export of live calves ...

It seems churlish to find fault with any attempt to put an end to the odious business of exporting calves that may be just a day or two old. What sticks in the craw is the idea of a government minister being put in charge when it is governments and the livestock industry between them that have created this miserable trade.

Before Britain joined the EU, our dairy cows were principally fed on fresh grass in summer and silage (pickled grass) in winter. The sort of animals that thrived on this pasture-based regime were sturdy breeds such as the British Friesian, the Ayrshire and the Guernsey. These beasts threw strong, beefy calves. The males - plus any females that weren't required as herd replacements - could be economically fattened for beef on a largely forage diet.

But the common agricultural policy, with its disastrous subsidies, put an end to this sustainable practise (sic.). Dairy farmers were paid to squeeze every last drop of milk from their animals. At the same time the EU - along with the United States - used its arable farming handouts to maintain a permanent surplus of cheap cereal grains, making it uneconomic to feed animals on their natural food, grass.

The rational response of dairy farmers was to produce a freak cow, hardwired to produce extraordinary amounts of milk. Enter the high-yielding Holstein, so bony in physique they were known as "hat racks". Programmed to milk at the expense of their own body condition, many are worn out at the end of two or three lactation cycles. A healthy and robust cow would happily go on giving milk for 10 years or more.

It's the male calves of these benighted animals that have failed to find a market. They are of no interest to beef fatteners because they are genetically fit only for pumping out milk, something of a handicap for the male of the species.

So it's a bit rich for dairy farmers to complain that they have no value when it's farmers themselves who have bred them this way. It's equally hypocritical of government ministers to feign distaste at seeing them banged up in trucks heading for the docks. A more humane farm policy over the past three decades would have made such a trade unnecessary.

And he helps write The Archers.

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