A Danish veal producer sources calves from 25 dairy farms. By Chris McCullough.

Increasing numbers of dairy farmers are using sexed beef semen with their herds to produce calves with added value.

That’s the animal Danish beef farmer Kristian Sorensen wants to purchase for his Tranbjerg Ostergaard farm near the town of Arre in Jutland, western Denmark.

Each year Kristian produces around 4000 calves which are then slaughtered for veal at the local Danish Crown abattoir in Holsted. The calves are all bought from 25 local dairy farmers which ensure Kristian has a continuity of supply.

Plus, Kristian’s business is a good outlet for the dairy farms to sell their crossbred calves at a higher rate than the traditional dairy-bred bull calves.

Seven employees work on the 600 hectare farm on which he grows cereals, rapeseed, maize and grass.

“Back in 2010 I bought half this farm from my father and then nine years later I bought the other half,” he said. “We began producing 1000 calves for Danish Crown but since then have expanded the business by building new barns and now rear 4000 calves for veal production each year.”

This particular Danish Crown veal production programme is called Danish Calf and operates with a specific set of guidelines the 160 farmers who supply the calves must follow.

Basically, the calves must be born and reared in Denmark to the highest welfare standards before slaughtering at local abattoirs which are on average less than 2.5 hours travel distance from the farms.

The calves must be fed healthy and natural feed such as colostrum, fresh straw feed or roughage without the use of antibiotic growth promoters.

Other standards include correct slaughter weights, body shape and fat coverage measures as guided under the programme.

“We buy the calves in at around three weeks old,” Kristian said. “I have a constant supply from 25 local dairy farmers from whom I buy all my calves. In fact, right now we have 2700 calves on the farm and I just bought another 175 calves from them this week.”

The goal is to rear the calves until they are nine months old and have reached the target slaughter weights as set out by the Danish Calf programme. Calves are fed milk for the first two months then are switched to dry feed and roughage until they are ready for slaughter.

“In Denmark we have a national calf price that is set to all farmers,” Kristian said. “As an example, for a Holstein calf crossbred with a beef sire weighing in at around 60kg I would pay €100 (NZ$160) for that animal across the board.

“However, I currently pay a bonus of around €100 for the best male calves, on top of the basic price of €75 per head. This gives the farmer a clear economic incentive to use more beef cattle sires.”

All the calves are vaccinated when they arrive on the farm. Kristian said the crossbred calves have a better feed efficiency rate than the purebred dairy bull calves.

“Two years ago around 20% of the calves I was buying were crossbreds but that has now increased to around 60%, and will rise even further over the next few years.

“We generally slaughter the calves at nine months of age when they should reach around 205kg slaughter weight. Generally we receive around €5 per kilogramme deadweight for the calves when slaughtered.

“Having more crossbreeds and fewer purebred dairy cattle benefits my bottom line and the climate,” he said.

Until the calves are three months old they receive 1kg of bought-in dry feed per day, which rises to 1.2kg to 1.3kg when they are five months old and around 1kg until nine months old and slaughter. All the calves receive about 2kg of fresh straw per head per day as well.

Kristian is well aware of which beef breed combinations perform the best as he has participated in some feed trials in the past.

Measured quantities of feed were fed to a specified batch of calves in special feed troughs. The feed intakes were then compared to the daily liveweight gain of the calves and results calculated.

Kristian prefers to buy in Belgian Blue, Charolais or Angus beef breeds crossbred with the dairy breeds as they tend to thrive better in his system.

While most of the calves for the veal production programme are males, he also runs a heifer production system running them longer to produce red meat.

These heifers fall under Danish Crown’s new Premium Heifer concept, which dictates the cattle must be fed with a high proportion of roughages and must be slaughtered at 18 to 20 months. He hopes to deliver about 600 heifers per year to this special programme.

While four people work in the calf system, 1.5 people look after the heifers and 1.5 work in the fields and on maintenance around the farm and machines.

With so many calves on his farm there are certain to be some casualties but using good welfare practices, and fresh food these are kept to a minimum.

“We have a mortality rate of around 3-4% each year,” said Kristian. “All the calves are well looked after on our farm and we try to keep losses as low as possible.”