Win-win way for dairy calves

A NEW program being run by Greenham Tasmania could give dairy farmers a new option for their bobby calves.

The company is moving towards establishing a dairy-beef program and the first lot of trial cattle will be processed later this year.

Cattle in the program are being run at the company’s Westmore property, which it bought about six years ago.

Overseen by farm manager Aiden Coombe and situated on the state’s North-West Coast, Westmore is one of Tasmania’s premium beef fattening properties and has about 2700ha of effective grazing area.

Mr Coombe said a dairy-beef system could deliver a number of potential benefits.

“It’s turning what is normally a by-product into something valuable, so that’s the main target of what we’re doing here,” he said.

“There are a few factors, and the main one is that the dairy industry has an issue with bobby calves.

We have seen different things around the world and different ways other countries are using calves, mainly based around feedlotting, but we think grass finishing can still be profitable and work.”

Mr Coombe said Circular Head was the state’s biggest dairy region.

“With the number of dairy cows on our back door, it’s almost silly to not go down that track,” Mr Coombe said.

“The beef herd numbers have reduced a lot over the last few years due to drought on the mainland, so the dairy cows are the nursery at the moment to get new cattle.”

The dairy beef system is set up with similar quality controls to the company’s Never Ever program, which includes requirements for no grain, antibiotics and or hormone growth promotants.

The program also requires that no antibiotic-treated milk is fed to the calves and they must be reared using grain free pellets.

All the calves are first cross with beef breeds such as Angus, Hereford and Speckle Park.

Mr Coombe said ideally they would take the calves on after weaning at about 120kg. The program is in a trial phase with currently about 200 calves at Westmore being grown and fattened.

Mr Combe said Greenham would work with producers to determine the best systems going forward.

“Some of it is still to be worked out, the exact path they’ll take,” he said.

“This started as a trial, but we’re moving into a phase where this will become a regular program.”

The current program includes calves of 10 to 12 months of age and an older lot of 18 to 20 months due to be processed at Greenham’s Smithton abattoir in November.

Dairy-cross calves have a reputation for being hard to finish but Mr Coombe disagrees.

“I’m not going to say they’re the same as straight beef breeds, but they are definitely not as bad as people think,” he said.

“Being dairy-cross they’re very quiet, which is good and bad because they’re good to handle, but they always come up to the fences for a sticky beak too.”

Steer calves have averaged growth of about 0.85kg and the heifers 0.75kg to 0.8kg a day. The cattle will be assessed after processing.

“We’ll look at the carcass yield and traits to see which genetics work well and which ones don’t.

“People naturally think a big Holstein cow crossed with an Angus bull will be the best calf, but potentially some of the cross bred Jersey traits might promote a bit of marbling.”

Dairy Australia figures show nationally about 400,000 bobby calves are processed each year.

A recent DA report into the potential for a dairy-beef industry in Australia identified a number of opportunities.

To be successful, the report says a whole-of-supply chain approach would need to be developed, along with markets for dairy breeds.

The industry would need to identify profitable and sustainable markets for products of dairy provenance and to challenge consumer and processor perceptions that breed is the main determinant of beef quality.

The report says increasing the use of sexed semen and beef breeds over late-calving or lower genetic merit animals could produce more valuable calves.

There is also a need to develop efficient systems of calf rearing on scale, compatible with community expectations.

The report says that research into pasture-based finishing systems that could offer efficiency and better public acceptance than feedlots would also be important.

As well as running the dairy beef program, Greenhams finishes between 6000 and 7000 cattle at Westmore, depending on the season.

This includes a large first-cross Wagyu program of about 2000 to 2500 head.

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