MILK producers are eyeing off the forecast cattle shortage and replacing their mop-up bulls with Angus semen to produce beef-dairy calves with the potential to help fill feedlots down the track.
The move appears to be driven by the desire to diversify income streams and exit the bobby calf market but certainly the looming gap in supply as the beef herd rebuilds, and the corresponding price hike, is strong incentive.
Big global bovine genetics supplier ABS has reported a 600 per cent increase in the volume of semen sold into the Australian dairy market through its Beef InFocus program in the past two years.
The program delivers a homozygous polled, Angus-looking calf and offspring have demonstrated average feedlot daily weight gains of 1.7 kilograms per day.
Victorian livestock consultant Graham Lean, Agrivet Business, said interest was very high among dairy farmers in raising animals to around the 150 kilogram mark to be sold to people backgrounding for the feeder market.
"The potential in terms of a high-value additional income stream is standing out like the proverbial right now," he said.
"A key attraction is the Holstein genotype brings a high growth rate and these crosses marble well.
"For most, it's not a big system change because they are raising heifers anyway and the other imperative is needing an answer to the bobby calf issue."
ABS beef key account manager for southern Australia Fletch Kelly said the trend went hand-in-hand with the increasing focus among dairyfarmers on diversifying their income portfolio, driven by years of poor farmgate milk prices.
"Instead of just a milk cheque, this means adding in a beef cheque too," he said.
"A lot of dairies are realising to produce excess heifers is costing a lot of money. They're using sexed semen to breed replacement heifers from the better cows and then using beef over the rest of the herd."
Primarily the trend was happening in Holstein herds but the results had also been good in crossbreds and Jerseys, Mr Kelly said.
"Generally dairy producers are not too worried about the beef breed so long as it offers calving ease and high fertility. We use Angus bulls because they are so reliable in those areas," he said.
"Our semen straws combine three Angus sires as this has proven to average up to five conception rate points higher than standard beef cross dairy semen."
Raised on excess milk from the vat, then powdered milk and eventually pastures, dairies are either selling the calves to rearers or growing them out to backgrounders.
Mr Kelly said ABS was also fielding inquiry from meat processors and feedlots.
"Feedlots in Queensland and NSW are starting to talk about it as a legitimate option to fill the impending beef void," he said.
Beef InFocus animals were dressing at 64 per cent average, he said.
Meat science lecturer at CSU in Wagga Wagga Michael Campbell said the long-term opportunity of beef-dairy was incredible.
"Australia had been slow to adopt this because of how much beef we can produce," he said.
Research on the feedlot performance of straight dairy calves showed weight gains of 1.5kg-plus a day and average feed consumption of 12kg per head per day, he said.
The next step would be research on the beef/dairy crosses.
"The value we see is that all the costs of raising a dairy cow is upfront so if they go as veal we are losing value," he said.
Feedlotters said the beef-dairy animal was definitely an under-utilised resource in Australia and would potentially be a resource when cattle supplies tightened.
There were plenty of dairy cattle on feed in the US, they said, but one point was the straight Holstein needed to be fed intensively from a young age.
It is not a concept totally foreign to Australia, with Wagyu-dairy animal programs running successfully in several states.