Should population and weather trends follow current predictions how can beef remain an affordable and sustainable protein source? Even at 2014 consumption of 10.1kg per capita the predicted 9 billion world population of 2050 will mean farmers have to produce 42% more beef despite pressure on land and resources that could restrict breeding cow numbers. Where will our beef come from?
A review of data suggests dairy beef contributes a significant proportion to global production. Between 1997 and 2014 dairy cow numbers rose more than beef: 17% compared to 9%, giving 257 and 295 million respectively. In the same period beef production increased 16%, with a similar 16% rise in totals slaughtered, to 304 million head.
In 2014 the UK produced 878,000 tonnes of beef with dairy-bred animals representing 53% of the 2.5 million head slaughtered. With an average abattoir consignment of 7-10 head/load, with 7 loads/farm each year, managing carcass quality and supply can be difficult for the processor, while consistency to the consumer can suffer.
I was interested to learn if beef production could be integrated in a similar way to pork and chicken. Could integration, through scale and management processes, supply a consistent, high quality and affordable product weighed against welfare and consumer expectations? Unlike other intensively reared meats, beef takes much longer to produce is there a model for integration that could work in the UK when considering public opinion on welfare and sustainability? What about the views of policy makers, processors and retailers on dairy-bred beef?
It was important to travel to countries where there were matched, long-standing dairy and beef industries. How do farmers in Australia, New Zealand and the US manage their beef stocks with, or indeed without, dairy-bred animals? Is there a place for more dairy beef in the UK and EU nations? In all the countries I visited there were examples of beef integration, including the UK: from small scale operations of 80-100 head annually through to one company processing 500,000 cattle. There are several key requirements to being successful when integrating beef:
- Positive attitude of producer and processor.
- Targeting a specific market allows for better integration from dairy farm through to processor.
- Those who work both back and forwards to integrate are most likely to succeed.
- Quality and consistency of production is key.
- Managing the supply of raw material, the dairy calf, is vital for long term success.
- Breeding and genetics offer value through the chain including an income stream for dairy farmers.
- Scale is not important at farm level: scale impacts the integrated business and sales only.
- Margin expectation needs to be managed at all levels of the chain meaning transparency of costs and returns, from calf producer through to beef processing to the retailer.
To scale an integrated system requires sustainable intensification where managing consistency of supply, farming practices and producer margin are recognised along with consumer demands, product branding and eating quality. It is possible to chickenise beef production using integration.
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