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Beef on NZ Dairy

We have been active in beef genetics for crossing over dairy cows in New Zealand since the 1990s – working directly with dairy farmers, meat processors and genetics distribution partners. Until recently, commercial uptake has been gradual. However, this uptake of beef on dairy is ramping up. Through our lens, this will benefit dairy farmers and everyone in New Zealand’s beef supply chain.

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Fonterra (NZ’s largest dairy company) announced in 2022 its intention to position its farmers as leaders when it comes to animal wellbeing. Fonterra is placing a strong emphasis on calf wellbeing and a central part of this is to ensure that all calves from dairy cows have a useful life, whether replacement or non-replacement animals. As part of the announcement, Fonterra said that consumers are looking for more assurances around the quality of life experienced by the animals that produce their food.

Since the 1990s, Rissington Cattle Company has held a consistent view that beef from dairy will play an increasing role in producing quality beef in NZ. Knowing ‘what’ is one thing, but also knowing ‘when’ is the hard part! It has been slow due to the significant expansion of the dairy herd over the past 20-30 years and the advent of live export of dairy heifers. The cumulative effect of recent, large changes and forecasted further changes in our dairy industry and broader NZ farming sector are why we believe the growth of beef from our world-class dairy industry will now be unprecedented. We have a cocktail of regulatory and market dynamics combined with new and improved technologies. Here’s six ingredients that all tilt the industry in the same direction:

A maturing to slowly declining national dairy herd significantly reducing demand for replacement females

New beef genomic tools can identify custom beef sires for non-replacement dairy cows with improved feed conversion efficiency and superior carcass merit.

NZ dairy farmers need an integrated solution for non-replacement calves to stay competitive as low carbon producers of high quality milk proteins.

Fresh-sexed semen reduces cows needed for replacements and boosts genetic gain in dairy.

Irreversible change in consumer sentiment around animal wellbeing

Replace low-merit beef cows or sheep with beef from dairy to reduce environmental footprint and achieve sustainable agriculture.

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Beef on Dairy Summary


In summary, up to 70% or even 80% of the national dairy herd could be available for non-replacement beef production in time. We know that some high-quality beef comes from existing, pure dairy herds. However, we also know significant variability exists in beef quality and feed efficiency (for meat). Nationwide, our dairy cattle have been selected to convert grass into milk over generations. This means that feed conversion and meat yields are poor from a beef-cattle perspective. By some stroke of luck, the Jersey breed that is well represented in the Kiwi cow ranks well for marbling. Despite popular belief, our local Holstein Friesian genetics exhibit some meat quality, too – but it’s not sufficiently clear yet which bloodlines do!

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From a meat perspective, the three weaknesses of a dairy cow that we need to complement through an elite beef sire are carcass yield, muscle shape and feed efficiency. While working to improve these three characteristics in dairy beef calves, we need to be really careful in ensuring that we continue to have them. 

  • offspring that calve easily, 

  • cows that retain high days in milk/short gestation, 

  • dairy beef calves that don’t require dehorning and 

  • dairy beef cattle that produce high-quality marbled beef that meets market specifications are ranked alongside the best beef from New Zealand’s specialist beef cow herd. 

The good thing is all these traits are highly heritable, we can measure them all and there is sufficient variability to make decent genetic progress. Overlay the ability to use genomics through DNA testing to accurately identify elite beef sires for this relatively short list of traits and it is fully achievable.  Add this all up you can start to see why Rissington sees this to be a great opportunity for our beef industry (and a highly positive one for our dairy industry too) rather than simply a cost or a threat.

That said, through a traditional lens, it might be easy to see nothing but cost and barriers if one deploys traditional genetics with a traditional approach to the beef supply chain.  Calf-rearing capacity is in short supply, given the high-risk nature of running a standalone enterprise in the traditional supply chain. Many foreign-owned dairies are prohibited from expanding their land resources. Also, people ask where anyone would grow or graze all these dairy beef cattle coming from the non-replacement dairy cows in the national herd. In other words, perhaps thinking that nothing else will change. If one removes Friesian bulls (using AI based on semen sexed for replacement females), adjusts down the average age/carcass weight of traditional beef cattle and maybe removes some of the low-performing cow herds or sheep flocks, plus introduces strategic supplementation with more efficient animals it is feasible to see where some land and feed supply might free up. Environmental pressure from trees/carbon farming is driving some of this anyway. Potentially, the beef industry may only have to account for the marginal cost of carbon after the dairy farm gate as the dairy cow (unlike the beef cow or ewe) has a significant alternative income source to cover her own carbon footprint. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a climate change believer or sceptic; this all impacts farming’s bottom line.

 Would this mean the end to our specialist beef cow herd? Unlikely, but the growth of the beef from dairy probably means a reduction, leaving only the very best specialist beef cows to produce natural service elite beef bulls for mating across the non-replacement dairy herd and/or high-end premium beef with a significantly lowered environmental footprint. Genomic testing of commercial beef heifers and cows is a wonderful and cost-effective tool to objectively sort whether cows are relatively efficient or not. Future genomic tools will allow us to sort the dairy beef calves before leaving the rearing facility based on which animals should be taken through for prime table beef and which should be left as bulls for high-end, lean ingredient beef – all will likely need an average harvest date of less than two winters. Again, this will be necessary to meet economic and environmental targets that, if we get the settings right at the regulatory level, should work in sync with each other.

In conclusion there is significant opportunity to positively reposition for those putting the consumer the centre of driving economic and environmental sustainability. There remains work to do but we know where most of the gaps in our knowledge and capability are and have some incredible new tools at our disposal to help.  

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