Last year, 346,000 dairy cows over the age of 30 months were slaughtered in Great Britain (according to industry body AHDB), most of which goes to the commodity beef market as ‘cull cows’ for processing into mince, low-grade ready meals or perhaps pet food.
But one organic farm’s nose-to-tail philosophy is finding ways to end the ‘waste’ of dairy cattle carcasses once they have stopped milking.
Ben White rears a mixed herd of 1,000 dairy and beef cattle at Coombe Farm Organic in Somerset. He first retired one of his dairy cows three years ago to mark the Soil Association’s Organic September campaign, and became the first and only organic farmer to be selling retired dairy beef in the UK.
Since then, the numbers have gradually increased and today he has between 35 and 50 retired dairy cows: “We’d like to get to a point where we have a really efficient dairy and at the end of their milking days, all of our ladies go on to pasture for six months and then make really fantastic meat. It’s about building a market and making sure that these organic animals are celebrated.”
According to White, retired dairy beef “personifies organic”: “This meat shows off the best of this food system, from high animal welfare to diversification for the farmer and minimal waste that matches with our nose-to-tail philosophy – we’re doing right by the animal,” he says.
“But most other cows are literally walking out in their working boots to a lorry, having had a desperate life of being milked more often, being fed crap, put to the bull more often, being given preventative medicine their entire life and then literally carted off to the slaughter house – that’s what we don’t like [about conventional farming],” says White.
After six months grazing on pasture alongside other female cows that are either pregnant and out of the milking chain, or ‘drying off’ and waiting to be seen by the bull, these retired cows are slaughtered and sold as retired dairy beef. Having been fattened up on a rich diet of organic grass with herbs, peas and barley, the meat is, according to White, beautifully marbled, full of flavour and rich in nutrients such as Omega-3s.
Because the animals are older, some thicker cuts can also be a little tougher: “There is a bite to it, you do have to chew it but we were given molars and incisors for a reason,” explains White, who suggests cooking retired dairy beef more slowly, perhaps searing in a pan then cooking in the oven.
Every retired dairy beef steak has a story, as he explains: “The product’s batch number links to the cow’s passport number and right back to conception on this same farm. That’s a staggering amount of traceability and there aren’t many farms that control the whole supply chain from beginning to end.”
“Organic retired dairy beef sums up everything that’s good about what we do because these cows have had a lifetime of that approach to farming. Our cows have been fed on organic grass, milked less often, had fewer calves, and at the end of their milking life they get to be in the field for six months before going to a small, independent abattoir just seven miles away – then they come back to our own butchery and meat goes direct to our consumer. That’s quite a journey,” says White, who believes that as a nation we need to eat better quality, higher welfare meat, but less of it in order to farm in a more environmentally-sustainable manner.
“Being organic is what makes our retired dairy beef special. To market a product that has come out of a conventional dairy, as opposed to an organic dairy, just exacerbates a problem, rather than providing a solution,” explains White. “But equally, it makes no sense to send organic dairy cows off to a large-scale abattoir once they are finished being milked because they’re not then realised for the product they are.”
Elsewhere, retired dairy beef is a delicacy that’s being embraced in the US, particularly in New York State and California, while in northern Spain, farmers traditionally retire ex-dairy cattle onto plentiful pasture amongst cider orchards for up to four years to produce 'Basque beef'.
When White first tasted Basque beef at a food festival in London, he says he’d never seen fat content like it before: “I’d never seen people go so crazy for grass-fed animal fat but it’s in vogue because more people are recognising its nutritional value and content.”
Within the industry, there isn’t yet an official standard for what counts as retired dairy beef, so White defines it as an animal that has been retired for between three and six months.
Depending on when their yield drops off, or if they fail to conceive, they might be retired at four years old or 12. At Coombe Farm Organic, where the herd is predominantly Fresian, it’s typically between six and nine years old.
In fact, White crosses dairy with beef cows so there isn’t any pedigree beef stock at the farm. “That allows us to do both beef and dairy efficiently alongside each other,” he says. “If you’re prepared to eat milk, yogurt and cheese, you should be prepared to try retired dairy beef and encourage your farmer to finish that animal so you’re getting the best product at the end of it.”
And while demand for retired dairy beef might never surpass that for Aberdeen Angus, White firmly believes that it deserves a bigger slice of the (steak) pie.