It has been the albatross round the neck of the dairy industry for years, but now farmers are finding a market for dairy bull calves. Tom Levitt reports...
There has to be a viable market for dairy bull calves because ’compassion does not pay the bills’.
Robert Drysdale, who runs StraightLine Beef, is one of a number of farmers producing beef from the dairy herd and moving away from the traditional notion of seeing bull calves as a non-product with minimal value.
“Without demand we are not going to get rid of the surplus of calves," he added.
"It is not easy to say that it is profitable to make beef from dairy bulls. There has to be a market.”
AHDB estimated about 95,000 dairy bull calves were still being disposed on-farm.
Half-a-million calves used to be exported from dairy farms via ferries to the continent, which has a larger market for veal.
But public protests, led by groups such as Compassion in World Farming, against animals being sent on long journeys in lorries and animal welfare standards in other countries has seen that outlet largely disappear.
No calves were exported from England last year, although an estimated 5,000 calves did leave from Scotland and a further 20,000 from Northern Ireland.
Without exports, the main options for dairy producers are to rear bull calves themselves or sell them to a beef unit. An option complicated for those producers under bovine TB restrictions.
In response to recent publicity around the issue, AHDB convened a cross-industry meeting this month of people representing more than 50 organisations, including retailers, farm organisations, vets, Government and non-governmental organisations, to discuss ways of tackling the problem.
Top of the list was how to find better outcomes for the bull calves than on-farm disposal.
“Undeniably, there are many things which will need to change if a market is to be found for all male calves born into dairy herd, including decisions on optimal breeding strategies and the choice of bulls and breeds which offer the best meat quality,” said a spokesperson for the AHDB’s Cattle Health and Welfare Group which hosted the meeting.
“Farm investment is required to ensure stock is managed efficiently and reared to a specification which will suit retailers, the catering industry and provide a viable economic return to farmers.”
The biggest challenge, said Mr Drysdale, who spoke at the meeting, was promoting demand from consumers and retailers for rose veal and dairy bull beef.
“It has to be more than just niche,” he said.
Mr Drysdale is currently rearing Holstein Friesian and Jersey bulls, selling to local butchers, retailers and export markets in Italy. He hopes to have 10,000-head of dairy beef by 2020.
He said UK retailers, who also attended the AHDB meeting, could help more.
“It is frustrating that UK retailers are not doing more to promote and educate consumers about British dairy beef and rose veal," he added.
As Dan Barber, an award-winning chef and author of The Third Plate, has said with his own personal plea to consumers earlier this year: “Eating more veal may be the most sustainable thing you can do for a dairy farmer.”
However, NFU dairy board chairman Michael Oakes said retailers probably felt that changing consumer habits (on buying veal) was too difficult.
“Retailers are focusing on where they can make the most difference and that is in reducing the numbers of dairy bull calves being disposed on-farm by their suppliers," said Mr Oakes.
"They have decided it is much harder to change consumer perception about veal.”
Mr Oakes has taken the approach of using sexed semen and producing beef cross calves on his 180-cow dairy farm on the southern outskirts of Birmingham.
He sells the calves at 10-14 days.
“Selling them at that age is no real cost to me," he added.
"My motivation was about getting more returns for my business. It is a financial win-win.”
A beef-cross calf is worth upwards of £180 more than a dairy bull from the same cow, according to AHDB, equivalent to 2.28p/litre.
An NFU survey in 2017 found a 7 per cent increase in the number of farmers using sexed semen, which can reduce the proportion of male calves being born to less than 10 per cent, compared to the previous year.
Despite a steady growth in the use and effectiveness of sexed semen since the early 1990s, it still only accounted for 18 per cent of total semen sales in 2017. But dairy farmers, including those block calving, were wrong to be worried about conception rates, said Promar regional consultant Jonathan Hill.
“There is possibly some merit in their argument but now with much improved sexed semen, conception rates are shown to be much better," said Mr Hill.
"There are many other management issues that affect conception rates before suggesting the issue is with the semen.”
Mr Oakes agreed.
“I was initially concerned about the conception rates from using sexed semen, but I am much more confident now,” he said.
IN THE FIELD: ANDREW BARRACLOUGH, CUMBRIA
ANOTHER farmer successfully creating a market for dairy bull calves is Andrew Barraclough, a dairy farmer in Cumbria.
Along with two neighbouring dairy farms, he rears the calves until six to nine months of age before working with Lake District Farmers which supply specialist restaurants with veal.
Mr Barraclough said: “We have put in a lot of effort with it, getting restaurant staff and chefs onto our farms to see for themselves how the calves are reared."
He said the onus was on farmers, not supermarkets, to find markets for their calves.
“We have got to provide an end product that the market wants. If not you have to change the product or get out of business. The industry is looking at this and changing, any farmer that will not change will be left out.”
FOR those not rearing calves themselves, there are now a number of outlets for dairy bull calves.
As well as calf rearing schemes facilitated by some retailers for their milk suppliers, there are also independent calf rearing organisations such as Meadow Quality, Blade Farming and Buitelaar which pay depending on the quality of the animal.
Buitelaar buys calves aged two to four weeks before arranging for them to be reared and then sold after 12-14 months through UK supermarkets, restaurants and fast food chains.
The firm took 35,000 calves from dairy farms last year, with five collection centres across the UK.
The growth of these markets is reflected in the number of dairy bull calves retained in the British beef chain, which rose from 245,586 in 2006 to 392,473 in 2015, according to AHDB.
Yet while half of all beef in England is already a product of the dairy sector, the UK is still only 75 per cent self-sufficient in beef.
Promar’s Jonathan Hill said although producers may get a lot more for fattening calves themselves, they had to ask whether it was worth the additional cost for 15 months.
“My advice would be to get them away and focus on what your core business is. You are a dairy farmer not a beef farmer," he added.
Buitelaar managing director Adam Buitelaar has said he could see a viable market created for almost all the bull calves produced in the UK.
AHDB chairman Gwyn Jones agreed and said there was a huge domestic market for farmers to be able to make better use of dairy bull calves.
“It is an opportunity to displace foreign imports which had a value of more than £1 billion in 2017,” he said.