Cynical and paranoid as I am, and having also several decades of background in observing and reporting about the machinations of the dairy industry, I suspect that I see a familiar pattern here — the same pattern that I previously described in detail in “Why cattle “offerings” prevail where cow slaughter is illegal,” a page one profile of the Indian dairy industry published in the May 2004 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE.
The gist of it is that male calves born to dairy cattle have little value if there is no demand for bullocks to pull bullock carts; no interest in bullfighting; a declining or disappearing market for veal; a declining market for steers; and soaring feed prices.
The U.S. has not had that combination of circumstances for more than 20 years — not since the whole-herd buyout programs of the 1980s took tens of thousands of less productive dairy cows out of production, to be replaced by far fewer cows who birth fewer calves while producing more milk & butterfat. Before that, farmers shooting unwanted male calves were a recurring scandal from the 1930s forward.
Now, though, we have drought driving feed prices sky high. Ranchers are downsizing their beef herds to the lowest levels in years. The veal industry has been in continuous decline for 60 years. Bullfighting and rodeo (a bastard offspring of bullfighting) entertain fewer voyeurs and drunks than any well-rated video game. And gasoline prices have fallen far too low to encourage any speculation in bullock cart futures.
In India, where about three times as many cows are needed to produce about the same volume of milk as the U.S. produces, and eating beef is culturally unacceptable, such circumstances are perennial. Farmers often respond by “donating” their surplus bull calves to temples, by tying them to the temple fences. The temple management typically allows the calves to die from dehydration, which usually takes about a day in the Indian heat, before finding the remains and selling them to leather merchants.
Since no one actually kills the calves by an act of commission, the deaths are described as acts of one or another of the Hindu pantheon. And leaving the calves to die prolonged deaths in the hot sun is perceived as holier than selling them to Muslims for either early slaughter or export at Ramadan.
Here in the U.S., the religious traditions differ, but the reality is similar: the only way to avoid losses from keeping male calves is for the calves to die from an alleged act of God.
Of course everyone involved will deny doing anything evil on purpose. The whole dairy industry is actually based on the premise of plausible deniability: people can consume dairy products without losing sleep over what becomes of the calves, because everyone knows that cows produce more milk than their calves really need.
But I lived for a dozen years on a dairy farm. I heard the newly separated cows and calves bawling all night. I left milk to the holy men of India and wholesome farm girls of Wisconsin and wherever just about 30 years ago. I sleep better after drinking a beer.