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DairyBeef 500 Newsletter January 2023

Calf sourcing | HousingDairyBeef 500 ConferenceDraftingRed Clover

Calf sourcing policy

The start of the spring calf rearing cycle is just around the corner for Dairybeef 500 participants. Buying the right calf at an appropriate price, optimising nutrition and health, and limiting disease pressure are critical to the overall level of performance and profitability achievable from calf to beef systems.

In recent years, Dairybeef 500 participant farmers have made continued improvements in there calf sourcing policy. At this stage, the majority are purchasing calves direct from dairy farmers with whom they have built up relationships in recent years. This occurred as they are aiming to keep the number of farms of origin to a minimum to try and minimise any potential disease outbreaks. When sourcing calves, information on the herd’s health, vaccination programme, any current or previous disease issues, as well as the feed management to ensure calves received adequate levels of colostrum, and the general hygiene on the farm are all important areas to assess before any decision on purchasing the calf is made.

Thorough examination of the calf prior to purchase is important to ensure calves are healthy. Calves should be alert with a clean, damp nose and bright eyes. Any calves with visible signs of disease such as diarrhoea, discharge (mouth/eyes/nose), deformity, disability, injury or blindness should be avoided. Younger calves - under three weeks of age - should be avoided as they are more vulnerable to disease.

Calf genetics

Calf genetic makeup and performance potential is another key area DairyBeef 500 farmers are looking at when sourcing their calves. A useful tool to assist them in their decisions is the Commercial Beef Value (CBV), which was launched by the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation in 2021. The CBV comprises of five traits from the Terminal Index that are important to farmers that are rearing stock that are destined to be slaughtered. The CBV of each animal will be based on the genetics of their parents, therefore farmers buying calves should ensure both sire and dam of the calf is recorded.  The five traits are: carcass weight; carcass conformation; carcass fat; docility; and feed intake. When used as a selection tool for identifying high merit animals at purchasing, it may allow for the identification of faster growing, better shaped, more feed efficient and more docile animals. Farmers purchasing animals for beef production should request information on the CBV. It is available through the profile section of the ICBF Herdplus account and it is planned to be included on mart boards in the future.

CBV values, expressed as a euro value, will be generated for all cattle that are likely to be finished, including male and female (non-pedigree) stock bred from beef cows, dairy-bred male and female calves sired by a beef bull and male calves sired by a dairy bull, provided a sire is recorded. Animals are assigned to one of three different breed types under the CBV, which is dependent on sire and dam breed. These are: beef x beef; beef x dairy; and dairy x dairy. Similar to the Terminal and Replacement Index, animals are assigned a star rating of one to five, with a five star animal being in the top 20% of the national population within that breed type, whereas a one star animal is within the bottom 20%.

When the calf arrives

Once the correct calf for your system has been identified and sourced, the next step is easing them into your farm. During transport it is common for calves to lose weight due to lack of food and water. This can lead to dehydration, loss of electrolytes and low blood sugar. To help counteract this, two litres of electrolytes should be given after resting for two to three hours. This will help reduce dehydration and increase appetite or food interest. Calves should be allowed settle into dry clean beds of deep straw. They should not be dehorned or stressed further in any way on arrival. Calves should be allowed settle for 24 hours and then given any vaccinations required, such as vaccinations for RSV, Pi3, Pasteurella and IBR. Preventative treatments for coccidiosis should be administered orally also once calves are the recommended age. Calves should be monitored regularly during the first week after arrival. It is likely that any respiratory issues will emerge in the week following transport. Sick calves must stay hydrated and treated appropriately with antibiotics using veterinary advice to ensure no long lasting poor health effects.

Calf housing

For many farms involved in dairy-beef production, the next 4-6 weeks is when the majority of purchasing of calves occurs. For the first three weeks on the new farm, lower weight calves have a higher risk of being lost. ‘Weight for age’ (liveweight divided by age in days) has a significant positive correlation to both lifetime daily live weight gain and carcass weight, so aim to purchase well-grown calves. The source of the calves also greatly influences the disease risks on the rearing farm. Some sources provide calves at higher risk of disease than others.

Calves should be kept dry and draught free. Draught is considered present if wind velocity exceeds 0.5m/s in any of the calf pens. Draughts hitting calves causes them to lose heat energy. Energy loss will double when wind speed rises above 0.5m/s. A comfortable microclimate must be provided in the first week of life with temperatures >20°C. Air inlets should be above calf height level and the penning area should be laid out so that the currents of incoming air are not directed into the calf lying area. It is also important to make sure there are no down draughts from the outlets. Draughts are especially difficult to avoid in open-sided buildings where wind cannot be controlled. Farmers with buildings like these are advised to build temporary walls/shelters to avoid uncontrolled wind impacting on young calves.

Calves spend 80% of their time lying down so the type and depth of bedding used is important. Calves should not be lying directly on concrete as it tends to become wet and slippery and encourages the spread of bacteria throughout the house. The quality of bedding material is crucial to reduce the amount of heat lost via conduction from lying calves. Deep straw bedding is superior to other bedding material in its efficacy as an insulator. It can provide a high ‘nesting score’ which has a preventive effect against calf respiratory disease in naturally ventilated sheds. Straw bedding should be at least 15cm deep and should remain dry at all times. Wood shavings and bark chips can also be used to provide the calves with dry lying conditions. Calves require up to 20kg/head/week of straw bedding in order to maintain dry conditions on concrete floors.

The flooring/bedding needs to facilitate easy cleaning and removal of waste. Waste should not drain away from one pen through another as this can spread disease. Drainage on concrete floors can be improved by having a 1:20 slope towards a channel. The channel should be located a minimum of 300mm inside the feed barrier. Channels should have a 1:60 slope and waste should be removed to an external, ventilated storage tank. There should be shallow channels within the pens that are 25-30mm deep, 100-150mm wide and easily cleaned by brushing. These channels should not impede the mechanical cleaning of straw beds.

The shed should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected with a broad-spectrum disinfectant before calves arrive. While in use, pens should be frequently disinfected to prevent the build-up of disease organisms. Ideally, calves should be bedded every day and pens cleaned out weekly.

The correct feeder and drinking space must be provided to encourage feed and water intake and to discourage bullying. For bucket feeding, calves require 350mm of feed face each. For automatic feeders there should always be more than one teat per pen. This reduces the risk of calves being without milk and then over feeding when a teat is fixed. The number of calves per feeder varies. Meal troughs should be 450mm above the floor, 100mm deep and 250mm wide.

DairyBeef 500 Spring Conference

The Teagasc DairyBeef 500 Campaign will be running two important conferences on Thursday, 19th January and Thursday, 26th January in Clonmel and Charleville. These conferences will be of interest to both dairy farmers who want to produce more saleable calves and beef farmers who have dairy calf to beef enterprises. 

Details of DairyBeef 500 Spring Conference

Presentations on the performance of the DairyBeef 500 Campaign monitor farmers and the dairy beef demonstration farm in Teagasc Grange will outline the key management decisions to ensure calves perform throughout their life to achieve a high level of profitability on farm. There will be presentations and discussion from both dairy farmers outlining how they have improved the beef merit of their calves and encouraged repeat business from beef farmers and also presentations from calf to beef farmers on what they look for when purchasing calves from dairy farms.

A panel discussion will follow including representatives from Bord Bia, Dovea, Munster Bovine and ICBF on the future direction of dairy calf to beef production in Ireland with an increasing emphasis on the need to improve the beef merit of the calves that dairy herds are looking to sell.

Click here for more information.

Selecting dairy-beef animals for slaughter

Drafting and selecting animals for slaughter is ongoing on Teagasc DairyBeef 500 farms and this management task will continue right throughout the spring. When drafting animals, farmers need to ensure that cattle have an adequate covering of carcass fat; this will ensure animal value is maximised at slaughter time.

Market specifications require animals between 2+ and 4= for carcass fat score. Drafting animals too early, which do not have an adequate fat cover, or too late - when animals are too fat - can results in a price reduction. This occurs as animals will not meet market specifications and penalties will be applied or bonuses lost on the Quality Payment Scheme (QPS) or through breed-specific schemes.

Nationally, a relatively high percentage of animals are being slaughtered at excessively high fat scores, representing additional feed days, and associated economic and environmental costs. Once cattle reach the desired fat score of a 3+, the carcass weight potential of the animal is maximised and putting animals into any higher levels of a fat cover reduces their efficiency significantly in terms of average daily gain.

With the increase in input costs experienced across the sector this winter, keeping on animals and feeding on longer than required will provide very little of a return. For example an Angus or Hereford steer gaining 1.1kg/day live weight will equate to approximately 0.6kg of carcass gain. Given this, it is advisable that farmers monitor animals regularly  and any decision on holding cattle for longer must be made on the basis of the animal’s performance, the costs associated with keeping the animal and the potential increased return achievable from the market.

Remember fat cover in early-maturing breeds and heifers can change dramatically over a short period. With this in mind, it is advised to draft animals every 10-12 days to ensure animals don’t go overfat. When it comes to assessing the fatness of steers and heifers under calf to beef production systems, the primary areas we focus on at the shoulders, loin, rib and the tail head.

For bull beef producers, fat cover can be slightly more difficult to determine. The areas mentioned above are important areas to monitor for fat cover. However, other areas that give a good indication of fat cover in bulls are the cod – the area above the scrotum – and the brisket, the area between the front legs of the animal. Generally once fat starts to be laid down in these areas bulls are ready for slaughter. 

How to incorporate red clover into your beef system

 In the latest episode of the Teagasc Beef Edge Podcast, DairyBeef 500 participant Martin Connolly outlines why he opted for the inclusion of red clover in his beef farming enterprise in Co. Roscommon. With input costs increasing drastically this year, Martin explored various cost saving options that would not only cut costs but also maintain high levels of animal performance. From researching red clover, Martin was impressed with its enhanced ability over grass-only swards to maintain high levels of herbage production and animal performance from significantly lower levels of chemical nitrogen fertiliser.