Non-replacement dairy calf options

06 Nov, 2018 03:00 PM
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The one aspect of our industry that does need improving is calf welfare, with special regard to the care given calves not required as dairy replacements.
Feedlotting dairy steers can produce a high quality product ...
The one aspect of our industry that does need improving is calf welfare, with special regard to the care given calves not required as dairy replacements.

In Australia, the majority of the animal welfare standards within our dairy industry are far superior to those in some other countries.

The one aspect of our industry that does need improving is calf welfare, with special regard to the care given calves not required as dairy replacements.

The global consumer demand for high animal welfare standards in food production animals is driving the dairy industry overseas and in Australia to reassess management practices and to question accepted standards of animal care.

One aspect of dairyfarming that concerns consumers is calf welfare, particularly that of non-replacement calves.

The fact that many surplus dairy calves are slaughtered within the first week of life is not acceptable to many consumers, nor to many dairyfarmers.

The industry must work towards finding sustainable solutions for this issue.

Consumers may demand that baby calves are not slaughtered at birth but for this to happen there has to be a range of economically viable options available to farmers.

Most dairy operations with stable cow numbers rear between 20 and 30 per cent of their heifer calves as replacements for culled cows.

Dairies with excellent calf-raising and herd-health management may rear fewer replacements, while dairies in expansion mode may rear all their heifer calves.

Heifer calves not needed as replacements by their farm of birth are often reared, either on their home farm or by custom rearers, for sale into international or domestic markets.

The global demand for heifers means that a relatively low percentage of heifer calves are euthanased on farm or transported to local abattoirs for slaughter.

Male dairy calves are a different matter. Although increasing numbers of dairies are raising all their male calves, there is still a high proportion of male calves sent for slaughter within the first week of life.

Unfortunately, straight dairy bred animals are perceived by the industry as having carcase qualities less desirable than beef or dairy beef-cross calves. There are certainly some undesirable carcase characteristics of dairy animals but there are also areas where dairy animals perform well.

Alternatives to slaughter at birth

Alternatives are divided into two types - direct and indirect.

The direct alternatives are the various ways in which male calves can be used.

The indirect alternatives are those that reduce the number of male dairy calves or make the male calves more desirable to rearers, thus increasing the number reared.

Possible direct alternative uses, in order of slaughter age, are:

  • White or milk-fed veal.
  • Pink or milk and grain-fed veal.
  • Grain-fed veal/baby beef.
  • Bull beef.
  • Steers.
  • Global veal production, which was high in the middle of the last century, plummeted in response to justifiable concerns about poor animal welfare standards.

    Paradoxically, in the past 10 years, veal production has started to regain popularity, for the same reasons that it originally lost popularity.

    Veal calf welfare used to be poor; now consumers are concerned about the slaughter of neonatal calves and consider well-managed veal production to be an acceptable alternative.

    The standards for veal production in the 21st century are much higher than they were 50 years ago and no longer are calves confined in crates, kept in the dark and fed an iron-deficient ration.

    Only a small amount of veal is currently grown in Australia but in Europe, veal calves are reared in groups, have their haemoglobin levels checked frequently and are given access to solid feed from a few weeks of age.

    Modern veal is a high welfare and high-quality product that commands premium prices; much of the veal produced in Australia is sold to overseas buyers.

    Veal

    Milk-fed or white veal is produced from calves reared on a primarily milk-based diet.

    This is expensive meat to produce and there is almost none grown in Australia.

    In Europe, where it is quite common, the legislation requires that calves have access to a specified amount of solid food starting from eight weeks of age.

    Meat from these animals is pale, silky in texture, tender and low in fat.

    While calves raised for white veal are slaughtered at varying ages (about 8-20 weeks), almost all would have a longer life than the average chicken, duck or rabbit that graces our tables.

    Pink veal calves are reared on less milk than white veal but are offered a high-quality grain ration from an early age.

    These calves are slaughtered a few weeks later than white veal calves.

    The meat is darker in colour and less silky in texture but still tender and has a slightly more robust taste that white veal.

    Grain-fed veal/baby beef comes from calves that have been weaned off milk and then grown out on a high-quality diet of grain and forage.

    In Australia, the majority of this category of veal calves are grown out on pasture; this significantly alters the taste and texture of the meat.

    While the meat is darker and less "melt in the mouth" tender than white or pink veal, it is still a desirable product.

    Bull beef

    Bull beef is produced from entire male animals reared principally on pasture after weaning. Slaughter age is typically 18-24 months.

    Managing groups of entire males does present some challenges but these are not hard to overcome.

    Bulls are well suited to intensive rotational-grazing systems, where the animals are moved frequently as this minimises territorial behaviour.

    Bull beef is a commodity product, subject to the normal fluctuations of the beef market; the meat is not usually prime quality.

    Most of the bull beef produced in Australia is exported as grinding beef to major hamburger chains.

    Bulls reared for beef can have their intake restricted in times of low pasture availability but will achieve high average daily gains (ADGs) when pasture is plentiful.

    Gross margins on intensively managed bull beef operations can be much higher than cow-calf or fattening operations, mainly due to the aggressive feeding habits and consequent high ADGs of bulls.

    I have had significant personal involvement in this industry and consider this to be a viable alternative use of male dairy calves.

    Steers

    Pasture-raised dairy steers lack the inbuilt hormone-growth promotants that bulls have and as a consequence are much less aggressive grazers, resulting in lower ADGs and later maturity.

    On the plus side, they are easier to manage and can be run in conventional set-stocked grazing systems.

    Slaughter age is usually 24 to 36 months. Steer beef is also a commodity product, subject to market fluctuations.

    Feedlotting steers is another option for the dairy industry.

    In the United States., meat is graded on an eight-point scale.

    The bottom three grades (6-8) are rarely sold as whole cuts but instead are used for ground beef or processed products.

    The next two grades are "budget" grades (4-5) followed by "select" grade (3) with is good quality but somewhat lacking in marbling, juiciness and flavour.

    Grade 2 is choice and Grade 1 is premium. Choice is the best grade likely to be found in a supermarket, while premium is usually only sold to restaurants and hotels.

    Interestingly, while dairy steers account for about 15 per cent of total beef production something like 40 per cent of beef graded choice or premium grade comes from dairy steers.

    In other words, feedlotting dairy steers can produce a high-quality product and could be an economical option, particularly in times of high beef prices.

    Holstein beef steers on feedlot rations in the US have a higher maintenance requirement than beef breeds and may require more days on feed than beef animals but have a tendency to marble well and consistently grade well.

    The meat is popular in the industry because of its consistency, which is due in part to the limited genetic pool from which the animals are drawn.

    Indirect alternatives

    Sexed semen

    Some people see the use of sexed semen as a solution to the problem of dairy calf slaughter. The use of sexed semen is becoming more common, partly because results are improving, which makes its use more economical.

    The use of sexed semen will not, in the long term, provide a solution to the problem of surplus dairy calves because ultimately the global market for heifers will become saturated and demand will slow.

    In the short term, though, the use of sexed semen will help reduce the number of male calves born, with the extra heifer calves being used as replacements either domestically or overseas.

    One way the use of sexed semen reduces the number of calves slaughtered at birth is by giving farmers the opportunity to breed the number of replacement heifers they need from a smaller number of cows.

    Inseminating the best genetic merit cows with sexed semen will increase the chance of them producing heifer calves.

    This means that lesser quality cows can be mated to beef bulls, with the resulting calves being sought after by rearers, rather than being consigned to abattoirs.

    Dairy breeds

    Pure Holsteins (as well as Jersey and Jersey-cross animals) do not have carcase shapes that are as desirable as those of other breeds.

    Some progressive dairyfarmers are questioning the exclusive use of Holsteins because of the various disadvantages of the breed; for the purposes of this article, carcase qualities are one of those disadvantages.

    There are other dairy breeds, such as Fleckviehs, Montbeliardes, Normandes, British Friesians, MRIs (Dutch red and whites) and some of the red dairy breeds, such as Aussie Reds, that have carcase shapes and yields more suited to beef production, while still holding their own as milk producers.

    Crossbreeding with alternative dairy breeds brings not only improved carcase qualities in calves and culled cows but also improvements in fertility, longevity and general heard health.

    Therefore, crossbreeding with some of these breeds is one option for reducing the number of male calves slaughtered at birth and one which brings concurrent benefits to the enterprise.

    Calf health

    If calves are to be sold to rearers, or raised on their farm of birth, they must be given every opportunity to survive.

    Male calves for rearing must have had good quality colostrum soon after birth; my suggestion is that buyers blood test purchased calves to check their level of immunity.

    This will give buyers firm data about the likely survivability of purchased calves.

    Rearers will not continue to purchase calves if they are unable to buy good quality calves; therefore, to ensure that veal or bull beef programs are sustainable, farmers must ensure that sale calves are "of merchantable quality".

    There is no easy solution to the problem of bobby calves.

    A "one size fits all" solution will never exist because every farm operation is unique and because of the geographic and climatic diversity of our dairy areas.

    What is possible in one area may not be possible on the other side of the country. However, options do exist to reduce the number of surplus calves slaughtered at birth and for farmers to add economic value to their male calves.D

    Jeanette Fisher is principal of HeiferMax.

    This article first appeared in the May-June 2018 edition of Australian Dairyfarmer magazine.

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