DEVELOPING profitable beef supply chains for male dairy calves will be a key part of the milk industry's ability to retain its social licence to operate going forward, says university researcher Veronika Vicic.
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FEED: A Holstein steer in a feedlot in China. Why similar beef supply chains for dairy-bred calves aren't as common in Australia is the subject of current university animal science research. Photo: Shan Goodwin

For that reason, the Charles Sturt University School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences student is undertaking work aimed at identifying current production challenges as perceived by dairy farmers when rearing bobby calves to weights that fit commercial beef industry specifications.

She hopes that through the success stories of some producers the research will facilitate a better understanding of how to integrate successful production practices on dairy farms to rear male calves for beef.

Speaking at the Graham Centre Livestock Forum, held online last week, Ms Vicic said excess males in dairying, which had led to euthanasia, was a large industry problem.

As demand from consumers for higher welfare and more sustainably produced food increases, the dairy industry has come under growing scrutiny for the treatment of male calves.

“To overcome the issue, we need to identify rearing strategies to utilise non-replacement male dairy calves for beef production but that’s where we hit another industry issue in that there are limited supply chains available in Australia,” Ms Vicic said.

“A potential solution is to look at primal growth paths that lead to eating quality outcomes that consumers are willing to purchase.”

Ms Vicic has found that Australia is in the minority of developed countries where slaughtering male dairy calves is perceived as more profitable than rearing them for meat production.

Currently, dairy calves are either transported at ten days of age and become bobby veal products, go to calf rearers or are reared on the dairy farm.

It’s estimated 400,000 non-replacement dairy calves are processed annually in Australian abattoirs.

“Overseas, there are other supply chains commonly used,” Ms Vicic said.

“Once reared, the calves go to a backgrounder or a finishing property, or they are feedlot finished and graded as a grainfed product.

“In the United States, around 40pc of Holstein steers undergo this pathway.”

Ms Vicic’s research, due to be completed in December, has involved interviewing dairy farmers to gain knowledge about current practice and potential barriers to the adoption of a system like those seen overseas.

Interviews have been held across different dairy regions to determine if production challenges are the same. The interviews are also identifying if farmers are willing to adopt new practices into a dairy system, to help the production of dairy-beef based on economic gain.

The theory is perceived high-cost requirements of rearing and producing male calves on high-growth diets in Australia may be offset by targeting a premium beef market. This can be achieved if Australian producers are able to follow an optimum growth path and produce a consistent high-quality product.

A former Fonterra consultant and a molecular biologist have teamed up to create lab-grown milk proteins without the need for a cow.

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