DAIRYFARMERS - and the agriculture industry at large - are being urged to shift their thinking on male dairy calves.
Researcher at Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, NSW, and Adelong, NSW, dairyfarmer Michael Campbell says the idea of bobby calves as a "waste product" needs to be reimagined, and instead dairy calves should be rebranded as a "premium" beef product.
"Holsteins actually perform really well as a carcase," he said.
He said estimates showed dairy breeds made up about 15 per cent to 25pc of cattle on feed.
While he acknowledged dairy breeds traditionally yielded less than beef - on average Angus dress 5.28pc more than Holsteins - dairy breeds were also likely to have less trim so could be comparable.
Dr Campbell said there had been a pattern in the past to consider Holstein as only suitable for ground beef, but a study in the United States looking at dairy steers on hormone growth-promotants found more than 80pc graded "choice" or better.
"Without HGPs, which can devalue quality, we can end up with a decent quality product," he said.
Dr Campbell said CSU PhD student Veronkia Vicic had begun looking at why most dairyfarmers were not considering this market.
He said there were a range of reasons, from a preference to focus on dairy, as well as a lack of time and infrastructure, through to having no suitable supply chain to reward any effort.
He said raising male dairy calves could be expensive, with much of the expense in the early weeks.
Dr Campbell said research showed during the initial stages of a calf's life, it could cost as much as $3 for each kilogram of weight gained, but this later dropped to $2/kg, for an overall cost of $2.20/kg.
"We need a supply chain that's going to reward investment," he said.
Dr Campbell said one of the biggest ways dairy beef could grow was with suitable branding.
He said Vic and Tas-based processor HW Greenham & Sons proved this could be done by using the 'Vintage Beef' brand to market older cattle as a premium beef product.
"This is turning a cull animal, normally used for hamburgers, into a premium production," he said.
"Put a brand on it and no longer are we selling a waste product.
"We could turn a $700 animal into a $1500 animal by value-adding."
Dr Campbell said there were a number of selling points for dairy beef, including a quality carcase and strong breeding records, as are generally kept by dairy farmers.
"We have a product no one else can replicate - we have whole of life traceability, before they're even born," he said. "We can give consumers an amazing eating experience, so why aren't we doing it?
"Consumer experience with brand equals a premium product."
He said one of the biggest reasons this was not happening was the lack of a dedicated supply chain.
But there were steps that could be made.
In an Australian research project, just signing up for Meat Standards Australia accreditation resulted in an extra 60 cents/kg for dairy beef.
"We've got to focus on the value chain or else we're not extracting value," he said.
"We need co-investment."
He said there also needed to be a focus on how the cattle were raised.
"We want bull calves raised as good or better than the heifers," he said. "They can't have a bad day in their lives."
While there are obstacles, Dr Campbell said he had been "harping on" about this topic for the past five years, but had seen a change in conversations recently.
"We've got a deficit of beef at the moment and the Eastern Young Cattle Indicator has taken a run," he said.
"In the past 12 to 18 months there have been a lot of discussions about exploiting dairy. So don't talk about waste product, talk about a premium product."
Dairy Australia researcher, Nuffield scholar and dairy farmer Sarah Bolton said changing the thinking about "non-replacement" calves was not just about the potential economic return, but also about maintaining public trust.
"Certainly in Australia, and many other countries, there is a growing interest in welfare," she said.
Ms Bolton said internationally there were several pushes to find uses for male calves in dairy herds.
Several processors in the United Kingdom and Ireland had already decided to rule out the euthanasia of healthy calves before the age of eight weeks, while Denmark will rule out the practice from 2022 and the UK at large from 2023.
"Australia is in a global market, with multinational companies," she said.
"But if they don't have potential value, we won't have to the ability to raise calves."
While there was a lot of focus on public education, Ms Bolton said some farming practices, such as the euthanasia of bobby calves, went against the values of a large number of the public.
"It can be harder to change people's personal values, even if they understand the practice," she said.
"As live export has shown, there is a very real monetary value attached to public trust. We need to realign industry practices with public values."
Ms Bolton said there was a focus in the UK for "responsible breeding decisions" and ensuring every calf born had a pathway, whether that was as a replacement heifer, veal or dairy beef.
She said there was also the option to use sexed semen.
Ms Bolton said a smaller Danish organic milk company, specialising in Jersey products, had formed a partnership with a retail co-operative to set a minimum price for its Jersey beef, with good consumer take-up.
"It has a higher dollar per kilogram price than conventional beef, so don't tell me we can't sell Jersey beef when the Danes already have," she said.
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