From bobby calf to revenue stream

SUE O'DOWD
Last updated 05:00 22/08/2014
Parininihi ki Waitotara calf unit manager  Derek Cruikshank checks out some of the wagyu calves being raised in the incorporation’s state-of-the-art Matapu facility.
SUE O'DOWD/Fairfax NZ

WAGYU WAY TO GO: Parininihi ki Waitotara calf unit manager Derek Cruikshank checks out some of the wagyu calves being raised in the incorporation’s state-of-the-art Matapu facility.

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Rearing wagyu calves for Hastings-based FirstLight Wagyu will not only reduce animal wastage but also will make money for Parininihi ki Waitotara (PKW).

Firstlight Wagyu is experiencing strong sales in Europe and the United States for its grass-fed wagyu beef - renowned for its marbling - and needs more calves to meet demand.

The Taranaki Maori incorporation is capitalising on that demand, raising 300 friesian and friesian-cross wagyu bull and heifer spring calves to 90 kilograms for $400 apiece in its specialised calf unit at Matapu in South Taranaki.

"We're turning a $6 bobby calf into a revenue stream," PKW drystock operations manager Andrew Gibson said.

Another 200 calves will be raised in autumn after PKW ran eight purebred wagyu bulls with 400 empty cows on one of its farms for three weeks earlier this winter. The remaining empty cows, along with friesian heifers, will be mated to wagyu bulls this spring.

Putting wagyu bulls over friesian and friesian-cross dairy heifers and empty cows would produce income for the incorporation from the sale of bull and heifer calves as well as reduce wastage, he said.

Heifers in calf to wagyu bulls produced the 300 calves on two PKW farms this spring. Gibson said some of the calves, at 30kg liveweight at birth, were bigger than expected, particularly from first-calving heifers. Wagyu calves typically have a light birthweight.

PKW has just completed an expansion of its state-of-the-art calf unit, which is managed by Irene and Derek Cruikshank. The unit has doubled in size and has the capacity to rear 1800 calves in a calendar year.

PKW farm managers send surplus calves to the calf unit, which can house 600 calves at once. Each of the unit's four purpose-built sheds has six pens that can hold 25 calves, giving each animal two square metres of space. Electronic monitoring ensures each calf receives its measured amount of feed.

First stop for newborn calves arriving at the unit is a nursery, where Irene Cruikshank ensures they learn to feed properly.

A new cost-saving feature is an automated system that feeds the calves their daily requirement of fresh milk - equal to 10 per cent of their bodyweight.

The fresh milk is supplied by PKW's newest farm, where 180 of the incorporation's own cull cows are milked once a day specifically to supply the calf unit.

The cull cows also produced 35 heifer calves. "Milking them eliminates wastage," Gibson said. "We're trying to be self-sufficient and to lessen our exposure to outside markets."

PKW also appreciated the support it received from neighbouring farmers, who supplied colostrum and milk to the calf unit.

Gibson said feeding milk powder to the calves remained an option when raw milk or colostrum was not available, but it was expensive because large quantities were required.

As the calves grow, they also receive a measure of meal containing 16 per cent protein and as much hay as they want.

"A calf needs fat when it's born and protein as it develops. Care has to taken not to give too much protein and starch at an early age," Derek Cruikshank said.

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The time calves spend in the sheds depends on the numbers of newcomers to the unit. Out in the paddocks they continue to receive meal and milk to ensure they meet their target weight gain of a kilogram a day until weaning.

As Taranaki's largest corporate dairy farmer and Fonterra's largest Taranaki milk supplier, PKW operates 14 dairy farms comprising 2500 hectares and nine dairy support blocks, including the calf unit.

It owns 8000 animals and another 2500 are owned by seven sharemilkers on its farms.

This year it's targeting 3.1 million kilograms milksolids (MS), 100,000kg MS ahead of last year's record of 3m kg MS.

PKW general manager of corporate services Dion Maaka said Fonterra's forecast $6 payout for the 2014-15 dairy season would make the incorporation smarter in its operations.

"We'll be looking at our cost structure and we may defer certain costs - but without sacrificing production at this early part of the season."

The incorporation would continue to monitor Fonterra's Global DairyTrade auction for an indication of change in the farmgate milk price, he said.

It's also considering further development of its relationship with Firstlight Wagyu Producer Group. In future it may finish wagyu calves to allow it to receive a dividend from the company.

Incorporation representatives attended yesterday's annual meeting in Hawke's Bay to find out more about the company's operations.

Meanwhile, Firstlight Wagyu is asking the country's dairy farmers to help it grow its calf supply to meet market growth.

It has 70 farmers who grow and finish the cattle, and is ramping up its supply of bulls and semen for artificial breeding (AB) this spring to get more calves.

The company is offering a guaranteed premium and contract to purchase wagyu-cross calves at four days old.

Last year's premium averaged $100 a calf from AB mating.

Firstlight Wagyu supply chain manager Peter Keeling said mating dairy breeds with wagyu sires provided an excellent source of high-marbling beef.

"It also gives dairy farmers a unique opportunity to be part of the Wagyu supply chain, and address calf wastage," he said.

- Taranaki Daily News

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