Dairy Australia - Dairy information for Australian Dairy Farmers and the industry

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Our team of veterinarians and animal scientists answer common questions about the health and welfare of dairy animals in Australia.


Q: What happens to calves after they're born and what are bobby calves?

A: To produce milk, a dairy cow must give birth to a calf every 12-18 months. After birth, calves are either reared on the farm to join the milking herd (if female), sold to other farmers for rearing or breeding purposes, sent to abattoirs (these, mainly male, cows are called 'bobby calves'), or euthanised where there aren't any buyers available. All calves, no matter whether they are male or female, spend time with their mother after birth, then they are removed to protect them from disease risk and the cold and rain. Calves need to receive enough colostrum (first milk) within 12 hours to give them the best start in life, so most farmers feed this directly to the calf.


Q: What does a dairy cow's life on a farm look like?

A: To deliver safe, quality dairy products, dairy farmers must keep their animals comfortable and in peak condition. Most cows are kept on pasture and give birth outdoors. Soon after they are born, calves are removed from their mother and put into a protected environment, in a clean, dry shelter or shed with plenty of room to move and rest. In the calf rearing area they can be closely observed for any problems and fed milk, water and some solid feed. The cow is also checked over and fully milked to collect valuable colostrum (first milk) for the calf and protect her from mastitis. This high standard of care continues after weaning. These principals underpin national animal welfare standards guiding the wellbeing of all dairy animals, including cow life on farm.


Q: Why is artificial insemination used on farms?

A: Most dairy farms use artificial insemination (AI) when breeding their dairy cows.  Many farms also use a bull at some times of the year to naturally serve cows while out in the paddock. Cows are only fertile around the time they are 'on heat'. AI technicians are trained to detect cows on heat and perform AI gently to ensure minimum discomfort for the cow. AI can be more reliable and safer than a bull and allows the farmer to introduce new traits into the herd such as improved health, calving ease and resistance to disease. 


Q: Do farmers use antibiotics on their cows? Does this make its way into the milk we drink?

A: On the farm, dairy farmers work with vets to keep their cows healthy and minimise the need for antibiotics. However, if a cow is unwell and the illness is suspected to be caused by a bacterial infection, the cow may be treated with antibiotics. Like human medicines, animal medicines undergo extensive trials and testing and must be approved by the federal government before they can be marketed. Antibiotics used in animals are only available from a vet. Food safety laws require dairy farmers to observe milk withholding periods after most treatments. Milk is only collected for human consumption after the cow is healthy and the antibiotics have cleared her system. Until then, her milk is discarded to minimise any risk of antibiotic residues.


Q: What happens to dairy cows exported overseas?

A: Australia exports dairy cattle to other countries to increase and improve local herds through breeding programs. Animal welfare is of primary importance to the live export industry. Exporters of livestock are licensed by the Australian Government and a great deal of care is taken to ensure the animals meet the importing country's requirements. All people involved in the live animal export process have responsibility to contribute to achieving positive health and welfare outcomes for animals and for ensuring compliance with standards and importing country requirements.


Q: What is disbudding and why do farmers do this to calves?

A: Most cattle grow horns unless they are naturally hornless. Around 10% of farmers are now breeding hornless cattle by selecting for these genes. To keep cows safe, as well as those who look after them, farmers remove the small horn buds before they attach to the calf's head and grow into horns (a practice known as disbudding). Disbudding is done by farmers, technicians or trained animal health professionals by the time the calf is two months old. Disbudding calves is much less stressful and less likely to cause infection than dehorning of older cattle. Pain relief is available to help minimise calf discomfort from disbudding.


Q: How are calves housed on farm and what are calf hutches?

A: A calf needs good nutrition, a warm, clean environment and daily care to grow into a healthy adult. In Australia, calves are typically reared in sheds where they are housed with a small group of similar sized calves. However, young calves are very susceptible to disease so they may be housed separately from one another for a few weeks or until they are weaned. This system allows the farmer to monitor the individual calf's health and food intake and prevents the spread of diseases from calf to calf. Calves must always be able to see other calves even when housed separately. In the case of a contagious disease outbreak, calf hutches can be easily moved or re-organised. Hutches are easily cleaned and sanitised and most have bottle and bucket racks built in to ensure animals have ready access to food and fluids. Calf hutches provide a warm and secure environment for calves until they are ready to graze on pastures. Take a tour of a calf housing shed

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