The dairy industry is proud of calm images of cows grazing in lush, green pastures, but behind this scene lies an inconvenient truth.
- The dairy industry is looking at a way to house the hundreds of thousands of calves that are not needed for milking
- Premium meat processor Greenham hopes to establish a “milk beef” supply chain
- There are a number of challenges to work with
To produce milk, cows must have calves and each year the milk producers end up with many more males than they can handle or need.
As a result, almost half of all calves born on Australian dairy farms die within a month.
The majority slaughtered as “bobby calves” – young less than 30 days old separated from their mothers.
In an era where consumers are demanding higher and higher standards, the fate of these calves becomes a responsibility.
“There is an overwhelming desire from the industry to take a constructive approach to this challenge,” said Dairy Australia’s Sarah Bolton.
An alternative to the unwanted
An answer can be found on a scattered property called Westmore in the far northwest corner of Tasmania.
Westmore has traditionally been a place where beef cows grow fat on windswept grasslands, but today dairy calves also roam the paddocks.
The property is owned by premium meat processor Greenham, which hopes to establish a path to surplus dairy calves that is more tasty and profitable.
Instead of shortening the calf’s life, Greenham wants dairy farmers to send them to places like Westmore to be grown to maturity like beef – or do it yourself.
Livestock supply chain manager Jessica Loughland said such a scheme would be a “more efficient use of the resource” and improve animal welfare.
“With overseas supply chains in the United States and New Zealand, we are learning that animals of dairy origin can actually produce some real, high-quality beef,” she said.
The Dairy Beef program is being tested in Tasmania, and if all goes well, it will be extended to Greenham’s Victorian meat factory in the dairy regions of Gippsland and Tongala.
But a lot needs to happen on the farm before it becomes a reality.
One challenge is genetic – beef cows are bred to be meaty and fat and dairy cows to produce milk.
Then there are the standards of care Greenham customers expect.
Cows can never get growth hormones and must be fed 100 percent grass, which is especially challenging because dairy calves are generally started on grains.
Greenham wants to help dairy farmers obtain alternative products such as grain-free starter feed as well as genetics that create calves suitable for beef and milk production.
But the company must also convince dairy farmers that they will not give up when the national beef shortage ends and high prices fall.
“We are really eager to see this succeed in the long run,” Loughland said.
“Lack of beef cattle is actually positive in the establishment of the supply chain because it means we have got farmers right through the supply chain with an appetite to make this work.”
The famous Tasmanian chef Massimo Mele is fascinated by the environmental and animal welfare benefits of dairy meat, but in the culinary world, taste is king.
The dairy he has tried in the past was of varying quality, so he is eager to taste a commercial quality product like the one to be produced by Greenham.
“If the product stacks up on the plate and consumers are up for it, then for me it’s a no-brainer,” Mele said.
“But there is a lot of work to be done to get there.
“As an industry, we try to inform consumers that a piece of meat is not just a piece of meat.
“Whether it’s a dairy cow or a cattle that is produced for meat, if it is produced well and in the right way, then you get that quality.”
Greenham hopes that its high standards, access to quality beef genetics and industry expertise will ensure that its dairy meat is on par with its other premium products.
While some milk producers may need to convince to get on board, some have already seen the writing on the wall.
Avoid consumer ‘kick-back’
Ringarooma cooperative farmer Stuart Burr reorganized his farm to keep calves out of the slaughterhouse.
He manages the herd to ensure fewer are born and has set aside pastures to raise about 60 extras like dairy meat.
The rest he sends to farmers nearby.
“It hasn’t been too hard, it’s just about a mindset,” Burr said.
The changes have been profitable and, in Mr Burr’s view, necessary for the long – term future of the industry.
“If the dairy industry does not develop, yes, then there will be many setbacks from consumers and animal rights activist groups that we do not need,” he said.
“I would like to believe within the next 10 years that zero bobby calves and zero euthanasing viable calves will be the standard in the industry.”