https://tableunderatree.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/IMG_E2842.jpg22311321Table Under a TreeTable Under a Treehttps://tableunderatree.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/IMG_E2842.jpg
No, that’s not a spelling mistake in the title of this post. These two lovely boys will eventually be butchered for meat.
That’s a fairly confronting way to start a written piece (a business limiting move perhaps?) but one of the things driving Table Under a Tree is the desire for authenticity, so strap in for a long read…
Yes, the boys will have a limited lifespan but it will be a healthy and happy life, and they will be cared for with diligence every day they spend at Table HQ. That’s likely to be anything from 18-months to two years, so you’ll be hearing about them often.
Butterball and Cheeses’ backstory
At Table we champion the smaller, artisan producers of Byron Bay and the Northern Rivers who are dedicated to growing, raising and making real and unique food. It makes sense on every level to do this, not least of all because this region has long been a food hub, with a long history of dairying and beef cattle as well bananas, macadamias and other crops.
The dairy industry is particularly associated with the area, with the 100% Australian, farmer owned dairy co-operative Norco established in Byron Bay back in 1895. Given this heritage, we love using locally made dairy products in the business, and it is safe to say that Cheeses Loves You is one of our most popular producers.
Debbie and Jim Allard run their Jersey cattle dairy in beautiful Burringbar and they are incredible people. Like most farmers, they both work harder than should be humanly possible, yet manage to maintain a sense of humour that is self-deprecating and just plain funny. Debbie’s Instagram stories are classics! More importantly, her cheeses are spectacular and she’s got me hooked on kefir.
Like any dairy farm, Debbie and Jim have to continually refresh their milking herd. That is a farming reality and it means that in any given year, Debbie and Jim will have around 50-60 calves born on the farm. Chances are that somewhere around half will be bull calves. The girls, the heifers, have a productive role to play in the herd, but what of the boys?
I’m a little embarrassed to say that despite having grown up on a farm, and having eaten dairy for most of my life, it’s not something I’d ever consciously thought about until a casual conversation with Debbie. At the end of a visit to the dairy one day, while busily handing me a couple of different cheeses to try for the business, she happened to utter some fateful words.
“Oh and we give away our boys calves too, so if you want some…”
I went home that night and while the family demolished the cheeses (seriously, I didn’t get a look in, but they gave them all a giant thumbs-up), I casually mentioned that I’d agreed to take on some poddy calves when the next breeding cycle came around. I figured we’d already run and butchered pigs on the farm, so why not try something new. It was a conversation stopper.
Squeals of delight ensued until I added that once we’d gotten them to an appropriate size and age, they’d also need to be butchered. There was a moment’s pause and then the squeals returned amid a general burying of heads in sand.
The dairy industry challenge
Safe to say, the issue of what to do with bull calves is something facing dairy farms the world over. It is an issue that has long caused consternation, confrontation and controversy.
It is a reality that probably most people – me included – don’t consider.
As consumers, we should think about the impact of our eating and spending. While I have experimented with veganism on and off over the years, for sporting not ethical reasons, I still drink milk in my tea and have been known to consume buckets of yoghurt. That means I am contributing to the challenge faced by Debbie and Jim, the 213 other members of Norco and every single other dairy farmer.
You see on most dairies, calves are separated from the cows within days if not hours of being born (for Butterball and Cheeses it was two days, so they had access to the health benefits of colostrum). My limited understanding is that this approach is taken for herd health, financial and practical reasons and Debbie and Jim’s experience is that they can better ensure the health of both calf and mother this way. The girls at the Allard Dairy are fed milk for 4-5 months being transferred into the big girl paddock, as Debbie puts it.
But for the boys, a dairy farmer has a few choices. Bull calves can be raised for breeding stock or for meat, and in some instances, this means veal.
In Australia, is classified by the RSPCA as the meat produced from dairy calves weighing less than 70kg or beef calves weighing up to 150kg and it is experiencing something of a renaissance. With the introduction of the AUS-MEAT Rose Veal program in the last few years, facilities raising calves for veal can apply for accreditation if they meet certain criteria around of animal welfare, environment, meat quality and food safety.
But what about a smaller operation like Debbie and Jim’s?
Most simply don’t have the capacity – in time, finances or paddock space – to raise their bull calves out for veal. To do so would be a whole other business. Many dairy breeds like Jerseys, which is what Butterball and Cheeses are, are slower growing which makes the cost of raising them to 70kg or more, significant. Feed, time, vet bills, paddock maintenance. It all adds up.
It means that for some dairy farmers, the only other option may be to euthanise the bull calves.
Every cattle farmer I’ve ever met has loved their animals profoundly, and Debbie and Jim are no exception. They go to every length possible to re-home their calves. Selling if they can, generally for a pittance, or giving them away to hobby farmers, small landowners like us, or others willing to take on the task of raising a poddy calf.
Be a conscious consumer
Why am I writing about this?
I’m not advocating for either side of this complex debate except for the obligation to make conscious choices about the food we consume.
You could choose not to consume animal products, and a growing number of people are taking that path. It is a commendable stance to take but if like me, you choose to consume dairy, I think the imperative is to support small scale farmers and cooperatives like Norco where optimum care and consideration for calves is most likely.
And if you choose to consume veal, be selective about who and where you buy from. Talk to your butcher about the provenance of their veal. In metropolitan locations, outlets like Feather and Bone or Handsourced are well-known for seeking out small-scale, ethical farmers who produce excellent quality meats. Yes, you will pay more, but it is worth it. And if it means you eat a little less of higher quality meat, that seems like a good outcome to me.
And if you simply want to learn a little more about the issues, I’ve included some links below that are good places to start, offering a variety of perspectives on the issues.
Whatever you choose, always do what you can within your means to support real people making real food at real places.