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Victorian abbatoir accused of cruel treatment of unwanted dairy calves

Fri 1 Feb 2013 by Hamish Fitzsimmons (Lateline)

This article relates to the following facility: Riverside Meats Abattoir (Aussie Abattoirs)

EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: First it was the mistreatment of live export cattle. Now it's male dairy calves. 

Video obtained by Lateline from the lobby group Animals Australia appears to show cruel treatment of so-called bobby calves being sent to slaughter. 

The industry says mistreatment is a rare occurrence and that some farmers are using technology to drastically cut the number of male calves being born.

Hamish Fitzsimmons reports.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS, REPORTER: They're one of the by-products of the dairy industry. Male calves on a dairy farm don't serve much purpose. Within days of their birth, they're sent to the abattoir to be processed into veal and sometimes that trip can be rough.

This vision was given to animal rights groups late last year. It shows male calves at the Riverside Meats abattoir in Echuca, northern Victoria, being pushed towards the slaughterhouse with electric prods and sometimes even thrown.

GLENYS OOGJES, ANIMALS AUSTRALIA: Almost every calf was being prodded and pushed along, so I was just shattered. I just thought this is a horrible way to treat what is the dairy industry's off-cast, their wastage.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: But it's not only how some calves are treated in their last minutes that concerns animal welfare groups. Under agreed national regulations, the maximum time an animal can be transported without feed or water is 30 hours. Glenys Oogjes says for young animal this is cruel.

GLENYS OOGJES: They haven't been fed for 24 hours, they're lethargic. You can see they are hollow, that is that they really do need a feed. It's pathetic. It's just horrible.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: The industry recognises there is a problem with how bobby calves are sent to slaughter, but believes incidences like those shown in this video are rare

RON PAYNTER, UNITED DAIRY FARMERS VIC: The majority of them are in fact travelling for far less than the mandated 30 hours available for them to be transported in, 18 hours is about the top distance that they're travelling and most are well under 12 hours.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: The industry blames the closure of local abattoirs for increasing the time to transport some calves from farm to slaughter.

RON PAYNTER: One of the issues with processing calves has been that the smaller, local, processors have become, well, in fact have closed down over the years. Processing has become more centralised. The challenge has been that it's meant that the distances calves have to travel has increased over time.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: The Victorian abattoir regulator, Prime Safe, has investigated the treatment of calves at Riverside Meats in Echuca. Prime Safe didn't consider there was sufficient grounds to prosecute Riverside, so the company was issued with warnings. Prime Safe believes Riverside is now compliant with animal welfare requirements. But Animals Australia believes problems within the industry remain.

GLENYS OOGJES: It says to me that the oversight system, the audit system in place is not working, certainly not protecting the welfare of these animals.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: While animal welfare groups lobby for more protection for bobby calves, some farmers are finding solutions of their own, such as using a form of artificial insemination to produce mainly female or heifer calves.

LAUREN FINGER, DAIRY FARMER: The purpose of sex semen is to allow us to have a greater chance of getting a heifer calf. It takes it from about 50/50 with regular semen, up to a good 95 per cent chance of that cow having a heifer calf for us which will then go on to be a replacement milking cow for our herd.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Lauren Finger and her husband Simon have a herd of about 300 cows in Gippsland in Victoria's east. They're pioneering the use of sex semen to produce female cows and would like to get the technique as successful as regular as artificial insemination.

LAUREN FINGER: For us it would be fantastic to get to the point where the sex semen is a comparable conception rate to the regular semen. We can use that over all our herd, we can get mostly heifers, and then we can put some beef bulls in at the end, and all those calves can be sold to be reared as well.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: If the work of farmers like Lauren and Simon Finger catches on, scenes like this could become increasingly rare.

Hamish Fitzsimmons, Lateline.

EMMA ALBERICI: Lateline approached Riverside Meats for an interview, but they declined to comment.