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An increased production and supply of organic beef products may soon be a reality

Crossing of organic dairy and beef cattle is the subject of a new research project at Aarhus University to reveal whether there is a potential for theproduction of organic beef meat based on young crossbred cattle for organic farmers, who wish to specialise in beef production.

[Translate to English:] 45 dyr indgår i et forskningsprojekt, der skal skabe grundlag for en større produktion af økologisk kød fra ungkvæg. Foto: Mogens Vestergaard, AU

Whilst the sales of organic food products generally are slowly rising, organic beef is not doing quite so well. This is because most organic farmers focus on dairy production, whilst it so far has been difficult to make the production of beef based on organic bull calves profitable. The bull calves are therefore sold off for fattening on conventional beef production units.


In the SUMMER research project, scientists at Aarhus University have in the past year attempted to create the right framework for an increase in the production of meat from young organic cattle. The idea is to ensure that the meat is both affordable for consumers, is of good quality and gives the organic farmer a reasonable financial return for his endeavours.


- We look at the potential for a production of young organic beef animals where we use crosses between dairy and beef cattle. We use both bull calves and heifer calves in the experiment and are putting the crossbreds on a high-yielding grass-clover pasture, explains head of research section Mogens Vestergaard who is in charge of the SUMMER project.


Forty-five animals included
He launched the project in 2012 and has been closely following the animals ever since. The animals consist of 15 ordinary Danish Holstein bull calves that are used for control purposes, and 15 bull calves and 15 heifer calves that are all crosses of Danish Holstein dairy cows and a Limousine beef bull.


Mid-May the animals will be on pasture for the second grazing season and the recorded body weights reveal that the cattle are doing well and have had a high intake of the allotted winter ration, which mainly consisted of grass silage fed to the animals from October till May.


- The heifers achieved the desired weight gain of around 900 g per day, but the bulls put on even more at 1000 g per day whilst housed in the barn. We expect the animals will continue at this growth rate and attain a final body weight around 500 to 550 kg and be ready for slaughter around 1 September. The animals are generally very robust and this is an effect of hybrid vigour (from the crossing of dairy with beef cattle) says Mogens Vestergaard and adds that the only supplement to the grass-clover sward is minerals.


He is convinced that with time consumers can look forward to more organic beef meat on the shelves produced from from young cattle.


- I believe there is an unutilised production potential. However, most farmers may prefer to use steers rather than intact bull calves for beef production because bulls are more difficult to handle and require more attention. The large potential with a 10 per cent higher growth rate for bull calves is also only achieved if the feed is of a high quality, says Mogens Vestergaard and continues:


- If a sustainable and profitable organic beef production from young cattle is to be achieved it would probably require the producer to specialise in beef production as in seen in conventional beef production. The production has to be well organised and the farmer will need to have sufficient land available for grazing and for the production of winter feed.


For this to be feasible, the organic farmers who wish to focus on beef production need to regularly buy in calves from dairy farmers. It is also important that the farmersuse crosses between dairy and beef cattle.


- The first step towards this type of production becoming feasible is for the organic dairy farmer to accept that insemination his cows with semen from a beef breed has no negative effects. . New Danish results show that as long as you make a qualified choice of bull, this crossbreeding will not result in calving difficulties or subsequently reduce the milk yield of the cow, informs Mogens Vestergaard.


Meat quality tested
To complete the project, the meat from the crossbred heifer and bull calves will be analysed for its tenderness and other eating quality as well as for its health-promoting properties in terms of its fatty acid composition.


- The quality of the meat from these young animals must be first-class for the beef meat to sell at a premium price and for it to form the basis for a sustainable and profitable production for the farmer, stresses Mogens Vestergaard.


The project is part of the Organic RDD programme. Read more about the project here.

Organic RDD has been funded by the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries and is coordinated by the International Centre for Research in Organic Food Systems (ICROFS).

Further information: Section leader Mogens Vestergaard, Department of Animal Science, telephone: +45 8715 7843, e-mail: mogens.vestergaard@agrsci.dk