Correct genetics, top management and robust animal welfare standards are the formula for success in one of Australia's biggest commercial calf-rearing operations, which supplies quality dairy crossbred stock into the beef supply chain.
The 5500-head-plus Calflink facility was built from scratch at a greenfield site in Elmore, Victoria.
Its location was strategically chosen for accessibility to most of southern Australia's major dairy regions.
In future, Calflink plans to scale-up its business operations with more such facilities that will enable the company to extend its services to dairy farmers right across the sector.
Calflink is managed by Cam Renshaw, who spent 17 years in the building and construction industry before entering the dairy industry in the heifer agistment business with his wife Pip.
The company is funded by a group of predominantly Australian-based capital investors who saw the huge potential for creating a commercial-scale beef-on-dairy supply chain in this country.
They set up Calflink with strict governance standards and a strategic vision for expansion.
Mr Renshaw said optimum animal welfare standards were at the heart of the Calflink business and underpinned the design and operation of its calf-rearing facility at Elmore.
"We typically have calves coming in from more than 50 properties at any one time," he said.
"So, having the right welfare and management practices is vital to our system's performance and success."
The other key ingredient is using the best cattle genetics to achieve optimal calf growth, health immunity, feed conversion efficiency and carcase quality attributes to meet processor and consumer requirements.
To this end, Calflink has an affiliation with leading Canadian-based company Semex for its Beef Yield program.
The program works with contracted and non-contracted dairy farmers by providing the best quality beef-on-dairy genetics available.
"A major increase in Semex semen sales across the industry means we are starting to see the requirement for a beef-on-dairy program to become more mainstream," Mr Renshaw said.
He said growers in the Beef Yield program had the choice of selling the calf progeny back to Calflink for rearing and marketing.
This beef-on-dairy supply chain program is the biggest of its kind in Australia and was modelled on similar innovative systems being rolled out in the US, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Mr Renshaw travelled the world on a fact-finding mission to further investigate the concept before investing in the development of vertically integrated beef-on-dairy systems.
"When my wife and I were running our dairy heifer agistment business, we saw first-hand the wastage that can occur with non-replacement bull calves, heifers and cows," he said.
"We started thinking about ways to boost the value of - and returns from - this stock.
"Australia's dairy sector has vast capacity to produce terminal-cross beef calves, but there was no commercial capacity for specifically rearing and marketing them until we set up Calflink."
It took about 2.5 years to design and develop Calflink's calf-rearing facility to its current capacity for 5500-plus head.
The Elmore centre fills a traditional bottleneck in the beef supply chain in terms of linking the dairy and beef industries.
"Dairy growers can now provide processors with a higher value product," Mr Renshaw said.
"It is about purposefully getting dairy stock into the beef supply chain to boost returns for all stakeholders.
"The system also helps Australia's dairy sector address ethical and management issues surrounding dairy calf welfare and reproduction."
Calflink's calf-rearing facility is aligned with the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme Standard for Dairy Calves, which encourages industry to raise calves to higher welfare standards.
It is based on group housing and yarding, and calf mortality rates are less than 3 per cent.
This is well below the industry best practice standard of 5 per cent.
Calves enter the Calflink rearing facility at an age of seven to 10-days-old and are initially reared on milk through artificial teats, before being weaned at eight-weeks-old.
As they move through the centre in age, property source and weight groups during the weaner growth phase, they have ad-lib access to water and a concentrate ration that has been nutritionally balanced by experts.
Mr Renshaw said calves stayed at the Elmore centre until they hit target weights of 160 kilograms at about 16-weeks-old.
He said they then moved to one of Calflink's several grass-fed backgrounding operations, before going to feedlots in northern markets to be marketed at about 22-months-old and at weights of about 630-660kg.
"This mimics the traditional beef supply pipeline, and its success depends on having the right genetics and management systems," he said.
"Our process is a major industry disrupter.
"We use select genetics from Semex and a limited population of dairy females, so we are producing consistent lines of high-quality cattle with high animal welfare practices.
"The carcases we are producing are high yielding and have high marbling.
"At the processing stage, our dairy-on-beef carcases certainly compete with popular Angus - and other beef breed - stock."
Currently, about half of the calves going through Calflink's Elmore facility come from contracted beef-on-dairy producers through the company's Beef Yield program.
The remainder are sourced through open market channels as the company continues to increase its Beef Yield program into more supplier relationships.
The bulk of calves reared by Calflink are beef-dairy crossbreds, but there are some pure Friesian bull calves going through the system due to the general supply shortfall being experienced across all cattle markets.
Mr Renshaw said Calflink-reared calves tended to end up in the wholesale foodservice space.
Dairy farmers across south-eastern Australia have a new opportunity to plug into a specialist beef-on-dairy supply chain.
Through the Calflink Beef Yield program, they can access top beef breed genetics to use on non-replacement females.
They can then supply progeny back into the company's calf-rearing system, which takes animals through weaning, backgrounding and feedlot finishing to processing.
Or, they can sell their higher-value crossbred calves into traditional markets.
At current cattle prices and supply and demand dynamics, both options can be enticing.
Calflink offers the Beef Yield genetics in partnership with global specialist breeding company Semex.
Dairy producers who sign-up with Calflink receive Angus or Composite beef semen from Semex for the production of terminal-cross dairy-beef calves.
Semen is drawn from a catalogue of proven high-performing beef-on-dairy sires.
Using top beef genetics can significantly boost the value of traditional dairy breed bull calves and non-replacement heifers.
Mr Renshaw said producing beef-on-dairy calves that achieved better results in the feedlot and had more desirable carcase yield and quality traits at processing was a win-win for dairy producers and the beef industry.
"It can really help all stakeholders in the supply chain to increase bottom-line returns and maximise profits from each calf born and reared," he said.
"Our system helps to close the link between the dairy and beef sectors in a large-scale commercial manner."
Growers who source Semex semen through Calflink are given the option to send calves into its Elmore, Vic, calf rearing operation and about 95 per cent come in at seven to 10-days-old.
These are milk-reared before being weaned at eight weeks and fed a concentrate ration to reach a weight of about 160 kilograms.
At that point, the stock are shifted to grass-fed backgrounding operations and then into feedlots for finishing to weights of 630-640kg.
They are then processed and supplied into a range of beef wholesale markets.
Mr Renshaw said this closed-loop system provided dairy farmers with a big opportunity to overhaul their reproduction strategies and boost the value of traditionally non-performing stock.
"We don't really want dairy breeds in the beef supply chain in the long-term because the economics don't stack-up for anyone," he said.
Calflink's system also addresses wider community ethical concerns about dairy operations and bobby calf management by using systems that stack up with industry best practices and community expectations.
He said optimal welfare standards underpinned the operation, which was aligned with the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme Standard for Dairy Calves.
"Calflink is already working with more than 200 dairy farmers in Australia through its Semex alliance," he said.
"And numbers are continuing to grow each week as they recognise the long-term opportunity of being allied with this type of service."
Mr Renshaw said these dairy farmers were achieving higher herd reproduction rates, getting more calves on the ground quicker and using less labour.
He said there was also the chance to secure more profits from calves that were traditionally low-returning - at only one week old.
Payment is made to growers within 48 hours of calves being collected.
Growers can negotiate contract rates with Calflink by taking into account wider cattle market conditions.
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