July 29, 2016

 

A better deal for ageing dairy cows

 

By F.E. OLIMPO

 
 

Generally, the idea of making more from one you've literally milked for years may not sit well with many people, especially animal rights activists.

 

But when you're into dairy farming, it's a business call you have to respond to once in a while.

 

Cows have a lifespan of about 20 years. But those used in the dairy industry don't live that long. The most is five years; their bodies wear out from constantly being pregnant or lactating. Aside from aging too fast, nearly half of those used in modern dairy farms become lame before their time-from standing on concrete floors to be milked for days on end, according to studies.

 

If you didn't know it, cows need to get pregnant and give birth to a calf before they can give milk. They are living mammals, not dairy machines that can be milked at will. Despite modern advances in zoological science, that's one natural law that has yet to bent or altered.

 

They undergo extensive genetic manipulation, yes-but only to make them produce more milk than they would naturally produce to feed a calf.

 

More milk

 

Today's dairy cows make more milk-many times over, in fact-than their ancestors did. In 2007, the US dairy herd of about 9 million cows produced 83.9 billion kg of milk, while in 1950, the country's larger herd of about 22 million cows could produce only 52.6 billion kg.

 

Given the kind of stress they go through, dairy cows age early and become less productive, if they don't become lame or ill of mastitis for lactating too much. Under current standards, production below 12 to 15 litres of milk a day is not economically viable.

 

As it doesn't make business sense to keep spent dairy cows, they are sent to slaughter. And having gone through a lot in their very short lives, their meat is considered of low value, generally good only for dog or cat food. Or low-end processed meat. Low-end because it can't even be considered fit for a big-brand hamburger.

 

Cows make nice hamburgers when they are much younger, when they're too young to have calves or be milked. So different cows, not dairy cows, are used for good hamburgers.

 

Dairy cows sent to slaughter are called "cull cows", short for good-for-nothing meat. In the US, about 9.5% of the cattle slaughtered in 2014 were culled dairy cows.

 

With global milk prices currently hitting rock bottom, dairy farms have resorted to culling to limit production and keep prices from falling further. So supply of meat from culled dairy cow is high, which doesn't help improve demand and price.

 

Indian case

 

It's a different case though in India, where most people shun beef. Instead of being sent to slaughter, old dairy cows are usually donated to temples where they are fed till they die.

 

If they are not taken to temples, they are sometimes used to pull carts or even allowed to roam free.

 

But not all cull cows are near worthless. In the UK, some of the best steak restaurants-like Kitty Fisher's and Chiltern Firehouse in London, Levanter in Manchester and Bellita in Bristol-sell steaks from middle-aged or old cattle, some of which are imported from dairy farms in Spain.

 

Quoted by the Telegraph newspaper, Nemanja Borjanovic, the Serbian‑born owner of London restaurants Lurra and Donostia, who imports their beef through his company Txuleta, "older animals give a very different meat, far darker in colour than the pinky-red meat from younger animals that we see in supermarkets".

 

The flavour from old animals, says Borjanovic, "is deeper, stronger and has length, like wine-the taste stays with you".

 

Most of these top steak restaurants import their beef from two districts in Spain, Galicia and the Basque Country. The Galician beef comes from animals called Galician Blond, and the prized meat comes from old bullocks (castrated males). "They are very hard to find, as there's no reason to keep a castrated bull for 10 or 15 years, except as a pet", says Borjanovic. "We usually get about 10 or 15 a year".

 

Galician Blond beef

 

The fat from a Galician Blond beef is very yellow, from the beta-carotene in the grass of the cattle pastures. "It speckles the meat like raindrops because it is slow-growing, unlike the big gobbets of fat you get from corn-fed animals", Borjanovic says.

 

Basque meat, on the other hand, comes from dairy cows. These animals are not immediately slaughtered at the end of their milking life, which is usually about four years.  They are instead given four more years' "retirement", when they are fed up or "finished" to improve their meat quality and develop fat. So when sold as beef, they command better prices than they would if sent straight from the dairy farm to slaughter.

Taking a cue from Basque cattle farmers, a project in the UK has started taking elderly, unproductive British organic dairy cows to be fattened for the prime meat market.

 

A similar endeavour has been started in the US. A beef company, Mindful Meats, has been raising the profile of dairy cows as source of good quality meat, not just cheap meat fit only as pet food.

 

Mindful Meats does not fatten old milk cows as Basque farmers do, however. Instead, they reach out to pasture-based, organic dairy producers offering them a better deal for their aging milk cows than what the current market offers.

 

Unlike factory farm cows, which spend their whole milking life confined in concrete walls, pasture-based, organic dairy cows live their whole lives roaming and grazing pasture. So they are generally healthy and better fed.

 

Sold for cheap meat

 

Before Mindful Meats, unproductive dairy cows, whether from factory farms or organic farms, were all sold for cheap meat. No differentiation was made between the two, even though cows raised by organic producers lived less stressful and healthier lives than their factory counterparts did.

 

Like Borjanovic and his customers in London, Claire Herminjard, CEO of Mindful Meats, has found-to their surprise-good meat out of old dairy cows.

 

Instead of being tough and chewy, as many people expect, dairy cow meat, has "a robust, mature meat flavor" to it, says Herminjard.  Dairy cows being female, their meat (their customers tell them, she says) has that "sweet, clean finish, and natural marbling."

 

For partnering with Mindful Meats, organic milk producers get a good deal for their old, underperforming cows-40% more than what the conventional market can offer.

 

Mindful Meats, of course, has very limited presence even in the US. With similar, though much smaller in scope, initiatives in Spain and in the UK, it is a good start to help dairy farmers get more value for their ageing milk cows.