This RSPCA KnowledgeBase page answers the question: what happens to bobby calves?
For cows to produce milk, they have to give birth to a calf. Most calves are separated from their mother within 24 hours of birth to reduce the risk of disease transmission to the calf, and most do not stay on the farm for long.
The term ‘bobby calves’ refers to newborn calves that are less than 30 days old and not with their mothers. Essentially, they are surplus to dairy industry requirements as they are not required for the milking herd. This applies to all bull calves (males) and about one quarter of heifer calves (females) born each year. And, each year, around 450,000 of these bobby calves are destined for slaughter.
Some calves will be reared for veal and about three quarters of the heifers will become replacements for adult milk-producing cows. Heifer calves may also be reared and then exported to dairy farms overseas. Bobby calves may also be killed on farm.
Bobby calves destined for slaughter are housed together on farm and fed colostrum, milk or milk replacer, usually only once a day. Bobby calves, because of their low value, often do not get the same standard of housing, cleanliness, care or attention as the valuable replacement heifers or the calves being reared for veal.
Products from processed bobby calves include young veal for human consumption, valuable hides for leather, calf rennet for cheese making, and byproducts for the pharmaceutical industry.
It goes on to talk about the transport and handling considerations for such young animals and concludes with:
The RSPCA believes that bobby calves should be at least 10 days old and be fed at least four hours before being transported. Transport to the abattoir should be no more than 10 hours and in trucks that have protection from the elements, bedding and enough room for all calves to lie down.
To avoid or reduce the welfare concerns relating to bobby calves, the RSPCA position is that if bobby calves cannot be euthanased on farm (to avoid the welfare issues associated with handling and transport), they should be at least 10 days old before being transported off farm and then slaughtered within 12 hours of last feed.
Another consideration is the stress caused to both cow and calf, described on this RSPCA page:
Separation within 24 hours of birth interferes with the development of the cow-calf bond and thus reduces separation distress. Cows will show a strong response (calling) if their calf is separated at an older age, e.g. 4 days after birth, compared to separation at 1 day or 6 hours after birth. A similarly strong response in cows was found when separating the calf at 2 weeks of age compared to 1 day.
To reduce separation distress, consideration could be given to a more gradual separation process whereby the calf is prevented from suckling but still has (some) physical contact.
On a positive note, this RSPCA dairy standards page says that:
In contrast to the fairly intensive nature of dairy production overseas – where cows may be housed in sheds for their entire lives – most Australian dairy cows spend at least part of the day on green pasture.
Finally, Animals Australia comments that:
The natural lifespan of a cow is up to 20 years, yet few commercial dairy cows live beyond the age of seven years, and many younger animals go to slaughter.
Due to the concerns listed above, the environmental issues discussed in part 1, and the more general argument about animals-as-means-to-our-ends from part 3 I choose not to consume dairy products anymore, where possible.
Part 7: asymptotic vegan