One growing class of beef — although it is not sold or labelled as such — is dairy beef: meat from the offspring of dairy holstein-friesian cows originally flown to China from Australia and New Zealand to stock the many vast industrial milk-farm complexes springing up across the country.
These dairy cows need to give birth annually to produce milk almost all year round — and only the female calves are able to become replacement milkers — so a new beef industry is being built around turning previously unwanted young male dairy calves into sources of beef.
It is a trend encouraged by Chinese authorities keen to become more self-sufficient in high-quality beef production, as affluence grows, and less reliant on imports of frozen beef and live cattle from countries such as Australia, Brazil and Argentina.
That’s the idea behind the $US35 million ($45m) Indonesian-owned Japfa beef feedlot near Dongying in China’s Shandong province, southeast of Beijing, which opened last year and is being managed by Indo-Australian cattleman Guntur Pribadi. Sealed roads, power lines, irrigation channels and dams to the new intensive beef operation were all built at the local Chinese provincial government’s expense.
Local authorities also located, drained and provided the 700ha of land on the floodplains of the Yellow River for the feedlot and its cropping paddocks, now rented on a 40-year lease by Japfa Beef.
Japfa Beef is a spin-off from the seven massive AustAsia dairy farms jointly owned by Japfa and Cargill’s Black River Assets in northern China, now milking nearly 70,000 dairy cows daily in automated rotary dairies, with the cows housed all year in long sheds.
For the past year, Pribadi has been buying as many as 10,000 unwanted one-day-old bull calves from AustAsia’s dairies at a time and keeping them for about 16-18 months in mass feeding barns before they are sold for meat.
“Why are we here? Because since 2012 the price of cattle (for beef) has nearly doubled from 12.5 Chinese renminbi (as the yuan is also known; $2.55) a kilogram liveweight to 22.8 RMB,” Pribadi says.
“You can’t tell the difference because the beef tastes just the same whether it comes from a dairy or beef breed; all we are doing is copying a model that the United States has been doing for the past 20 years where 15 per cent of their local beef production is now from dairy cattle; but they don’t ever say that.”
Beef from dairy steers is not new; it’s one reason that Ireland, with its rolling hills of green grass dotted with thousands of dairy cows, is Europe’s biggest beef producer. Now that efficient modern dairy farms are blossoming across China, run by foreign companies such as AustAsia, Fonterra and Murray Goulburn, the new focus is on replicating this corporate model of intensive beef farming. With few suitable beef breeds locally, the quickest way to gear up production is to use the good fertility and size genetics of Australian and New Zealand dairy cows sold to China over the past decade, and to cross them with meat cattle breeds such as black angus and wagyu.
Pribadi’s dairy beef feedlot is new, but already there are plans for at least half of all 45,000 milking cows in the associated AustAsia-Japfa dairy farm complexes spread across northern China to be impregnated each year with wagyu or angus bull semen, to produce calves better suited to turning into beef steaks.
Apart from their black-and-white colour, the shape and roundness of the dairy weaners at the end of 20 months of being fed grain, corn and silage are almost identical to that of a beef-cattle steer. The next stage of Japfa’s farsighted plan is to extend its beef feedlot business to take young angus beef cattle imported live from southern Australia to be fattened on grain for another 90 days before slaughter.
“I wouldn’t say we are competition to Australia’s live cattle trade; we complement it and will probably be part of it too,” says Pribadi. “We are aiming to mainly supply the premium higher-priced, western-style steak market here, where the younger Chinese have learnt to eat thicker steaks with more fat content, from castrated young male cattle.
“But 70 per cent of beef sold in China is still eaten in hot pot (dishes) that use thinly sliced beef that is lean and non-marbled — so there is also a market to keep some of our young (dairy) bull calves entire to supply that leaner, more traditional local demand.”