Organic beef production in Australia

by Alan Broughton

Photo: Van Kien Nguyen, July 2020

Many parts of Australia are not suitable for growing crops but grow good pasture to graze cattle and sheep.

One of the reasons the British colonised Australia in 1788 was to obtain grazing land to feed and clothe Britain’s rapidly industrialised and urbanised population. Australia has no native cattle, so the original herds were shipped from England. Initially, they were run organically on the vast grasslands that Aboriginal people had created to feed kangaroos and other marsupials that they hunted.

The new settlers soon degraded these grasslands by over-stocking. By the 1920s they had become reliant on superphosphate to boost soil fertility. A return to organics means a rejection of the use of superphosphate, and the development of biological soil and cattle management techniques.

All organic cattle are free range for all their lives. Confined animal feedlots are not permitted under organic standards. Calves feed from their mothers until they are about 6 months old.

The stocking rate depends on the climate and soils, ranging from 1 cow per hectare on southern irrigated land to one cow per 250 hectares in arid areas. Farm size varies from 20 hectares to more than 1 million hectares. There are about 200 certified beef producers.

Organic beef is sold at specialty butcher shops, farmers markets and some supermarkets. There are also online distribution systems. About a quarter of production is exported, mainly to East Asia and the United States.

The supply of organic beef is much less than demand. However, some beef that is produced using organic methods is not sold as organic because of a lack of processing facilities. Abattoirs that process the meat must also be certified organic. There are many beef producers that do not use any chemicals, but have not sought organic certification because of poor access to organic abattoirs and markets. The price premium for organic beef is about 25%, which some farmers see as insufficient to cover the extra costs of certification and transport.

Producing organic beef is not difficult but does require skill to maintain animal health without using veterinary medicines. Any animal that does need to be treated can never be sold as organic. This includes treatments for intestinal and external parasites. Every animal must be individually identifiable, usually with a number attached to the ear. Organic farmers maintain records for each animal.

There are three organic beef producing zones in Australia: the temperate zone of southern Australia, the arid zone of the centre, and the tropical zone.

In the temperate zone the farms are smaller and the stocking density higher. The chief health concern is intestinal parasites. These parasites are managed by rotating animals around many paddocks so that each paddock has a long rest period, which prevents parasites from completing their lifecycle. Farmers also plant high tannin containing pasture plants that repel the parasites.

Parasites are rare in the arid zone because of very long dry periods and high temperatures. Water is provided by bores which reach deep underground.

Ticks and buffalo flies are the main problems of the tropical zone. They are commonly managed with mineral, botanical and biological pesticides.

After high rainfall periods many farmers make hay or silage to feed out to the cattle in dry seasons. The majority of this feed is produced on the farm, but some fodder to be brought in from other organic farms. In the temperate zone, many farmers grow fodder crops like sorghum or maize which they cut and preserve. In the tropics it is common to plant Leucaena as a fodder tree for dry season feeding.

Many organic beef producers put out free-choice minerals for the cattle. The components vary depending on the time of year and the soil conditions. They often include dolomite, seaweed, sulphur and copper sulphate. In tropical regions rock phosphate can be included.

Temperate zone farmers usually apply mineral fertilisers, such as lime, rock phosphate and trace elements, but this is not possible on the huge arid and tropical zone farms. Rapid recycling of manure by dung beetles and soil microbes assists with maintaining soil fertility.

The choice of cattle breed depends on its suitability to the climate. Temperate climate breeds include Hereford, Angus and Murray Grey. Herefords are also used in arid areas, while those in the tropics are commonly Indian breeds.

The market for organic beef and the supply continues to grow.

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