Thursday, December 7, 2023

Pickup delays a sign of bobby pressures to come

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System already buckling – and next season’s new regime will only add to that.
Farmers should no longer expect an immediate pickup of their calves because of labour shortages.
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The days of having bobby calves picked up from dairy farms on time may be a thing of the past – an unaffordable luxury as the meat sector battles widespread labour shortages.

Those labour constraints have had an impact on Silver Fern Farms’ calf pickup, despite the success and popularity of its new booking app, SFF chief supply chain officer Dan Boulton said.

“Whether we had the app or used the flag system, unfortunately the situation would have been with the current constraints we wouldn’t have been able to pick up every single calf on the day.”

 SFF has been working with the dairy industry pre- and post-calving around the delays and what to expect, as well as ensuring farmers can hold onto their calves until a pickup can take place.

Next season will see more calves when Fonterra’s rules about all non-replacement calves entering a value stream come into effect in June.

All of the meat companies have been working with Fonterra around how they will absorb the increase in numbers, he said.

“That said, farmers are going to have to prepare and they may have to wait three, four or five days – whatever it is in the peak – to get their calves away. Everyone’s going to have to carry some of that weight.”

SFF recognises the reputational risks bobby calves have for both beef and dairy, and supports Fonterra’s moves to reduce bobby numbers.

A Fonterra spokesperson said it does consider bobby calves and collection part of a value stream and is working with meat companies around solutions for pickup.

Federated Farmers dairy chair Richard McIntyre said to the co-operative’s credit, it has given farmers plenty of notification about the change and he supports its aim, which is to prevent calves being euthanised on farms.

“You want to make sure everything has a purpose and a value as opposed to it being a genuine by-product.”

Exacerbating this issue is the current state of the calf-rearing industry, which has seen good, rearable calves being put in the bobby pen because there is no market for them.

Even good quality Friesian bull calves were making only $50, he said.

“We have this issue of ‘let’s reduce our bobby numbers or find better avenues for calves born on dairy farms’ – and that’s great and I support that, but at the same time, we can’t finish every dairy calf in New Zealand because we don’t have enough pastoral land.”

AgFirst consultant Bob Thomson believes Fonterra saw the writing on the wall when it made the decision and was merely reacting to what consumers are saying to it.

If they are not being collected, they have to have a use, and one possible solution is holding onto spring-born calves for finishing at 15-18 months.

“The challenge there is that the meat industry doesn’t see value in animals with a 150kg-200kg carcase weight. The whole payment system is geared around animals twice as big as that,” he said.

There was also the question of land. If bobbies are to be raised, land is needed to raise them and the price these animals receive have to be competitive with whatever finishers receive for heavier cattle.

“My contention is that the meat companies are going to have to wake up and get to grips with the fact they are going to have to start killing cattle like that.”

If they do not, and farmers have to hold these animals over for another winter, they will need double the size of land to support these cattle.

If that land is not available, farmers will have to reduce their cow herd size so there is enough feed to support these extra calves, he said.

Boulton said they are in talks with the dairy industry about potential solutions, including examining the viability of yearling beef and whether there is a market for that.

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