Industry overview

By mid 2016 New Zealand had 3.5 million beef cattle, 2.5 million of whom were located in the North island [1]. The average beef cattle herd size on a beef and sheep farm has been estimated as 60-80 cattle [2].

However, driven by market pressures, over time sheep and beef farming is giving way to dairy farming [2]. By mid 2016, New Zealand had 6.6 million dairy cattle, an increase from just over five million, a decade prior. Just over 60{a45acdedd74c9a504fc493a5338636f9a8e9f4c1cd9551367c9fc4ceb1a1fe5b} were located in the North Island [1].

As part of intensification of dairy production, farm numbers have decreased, whilst the average herd size has increased. By 2009-2010 average dairy herd sizes ranged from 272 in Taranaki, to over 700 in Canterbury, with 20{a45acdedd74c9a504fc493a5338636f9a8e9f4c1cd9551367c9fc4ceb1a1fe5b} of herds having over 500 cows [3].

In the year ending 30 June 2016, 4.4 million dairy calves were born [1]. Dairy calves are either slaughtered, raised for beef, or raised as dairy herd replacements. After about five years of pregnancy and lactation, cows’ milk production declines and they are slaughtered, having lived only a quarter of their normal lifespan. More than 20{a45acdedd74c9a504fc493a5338636f9a8e9f4c1cd9551367c9fc4ceb1a1fe5b} of dairy cows are killed each year [2].

In the year ending September 2017, 1.7 million beef and dairy calves were slaughtered. Beef cattle are normally slaughtered after being grown to marketable weight as adults, so almost all slaughtered would have been dairy calves (MPI 2017). These ‘bobby calves’ are normally slaughtered at the legal minimum of four days of age so that we can take their mothers’ milk.

Some of the remaining dairy calves would have been grown as replacements for the 952,000 dairy cattle (728,000 cows, 92,000 heifers, 53,000 steers and 79,000 bulls) slaughtered in the year ending September 2017. An additional 474 calves were grown for veal, and slaughtered as dairy vealers.

The fate of the remaining approximately 1.7 million dairy calves is not clear from examination of government statistics [4], but most are likely to have been retained on farms and grown for beef.


  1. MacPherson L. (2017). Agricultural Production Statistics: June 2016 (final). Table 4., accessed 27 Nov. 2017.
  2. Stafford KJ. (2013). Animal Welfare in New Zealand. Cambridge, New Zealand: New Zealand Society of Animal Production.
  3. Anon. (2011). New Zealand Dairy Statistics 2009-10. Hamilton, New Zealand: Dairy NZ.
  4. Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) (2017). Livestock slaughter statistics., accessed 23 Nov. 2017.
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