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Beef calves coming earlier in the dairy calving season

Beef calves coming earlier in the dairy calving season

Due to the breeding policies in play on dairy farms, beef-sired calves from the dairy herd tended to reach the market in the second half of the spring calving season.

Now through the adoption of key technologies such as sexed semen, the use of breeding tools like the Dairy Beef Index, and a lesser requirement for replacements for the dairy herd, more beef-sired calves from the dairy herd are starting to become available to the marketplace earlier in the season.

Initially only used in limited circumstances, such as pedigree breeding operations, the uptake of sexed semen has increased across many herds nationally. Although ~275,000 straws of sex-sorted semen were available for the 2023 breeding season, further increases in availability are expected in the years to come.

Speaking as part of a panel discussion at the launch of a consultation process for a 10-point action plan to support dairy calf to beef systems on Thursday, January 18th, Dr Margaret Kelleher, a Quantitative Geneticist with ICBF, highlighted how changed breeding policies are starting to result in beef calves coming earlier in the dairy calving season.

Margaret explained: “Typically, we would have seen beef bulls being used at the end of the breeding season to do a mop-up job. But if you look at last year, there were 250,000 beef-sired calves that were February born and 250,000 again in March. That was the first time we saw that there was an equal amount [of beef-sired calves] in February as March.”

Although many dairy farmers are now using breeding tools such as the Dairy Beef Index when selecting sires, Margaret explained that some farmers still need to make better breeding decisions when it comes to the beef genetics being used, and to not only focus on the bull’s calving traits, but also the sire’s potential for beef production.

“There are farmers out there that are using the Dairy Beef Index to its full plethora and using it efficiently, because they know how important it is to have a saleable calf at the end of the day,” she added.

Margaret also touched on the National Genotyping Programme (NGP) and the role the Commercial Beef Value (CBV) will play in the coming calf buying season, noting that 10,500 farms have signed up to the NGP, which will result in the generation of more CBVs for calves this spring.

“I think for the first time now, beef farmers will have a choice. We are always saying that the dairy farmer makes the choice at the start through the DBI. Now the beef farmer has the CBV as their tool and they have a choice: ‘Do I go to the farmer who has a high CBV or do I go to the farmer who doesn’t look at the DBI in terms of beef traits as well’.”

Delegates at the launch of the consultation on the 10-point plan for Dairy Calf to Beef Systems

Delegates at the launch of the consultation on the 10-point action plan on dairy calf to beef systems

‘We aren’t starting from scratch on dairy-beef breeding’

Also speaking as part of the panel discussion, Dr Doreen Corridan, CEO of the National Cattle Breeding Centre (NCBC), explained that the industry isn’t starting from scratch when it comes to breeding beef animals from the dairy herd, but rather considerable progress has been made over the last five years.

She explained: “If we look at AI bulls and stock bulls for maiden heifers, without increasing calving [difficulty], we have plenty of bulls now available that are +10kg of carcass. That’s a breeding value which would convert into 20kg of carcass [in the finished animal]. That extra 20kg of extra carcass has been achieved without increasing calving.

“For dairy cows, we have plenty of beef bulls now that are +15kg of carcass, getting up towards +25kg of carcass for some of the continental breeds, without increasing calving [difficulty].

“For the maiden heifers, we can get another 20kg of carcass and out of the cows we can get another 30-40kg of carcass. So there is plenty of potential there and that’s what we have achieved to date and the question is how do we drive it on and achieve more.”

For dairy farmers to use bulls of improved beef quality, Doreen explained, security of calving is a must, with bull testing programmes playing an essential role in identifying such bulls and making them available to the dairy industry and pedigree breeders nationally.

Doreen also delved into a potential breeding programme for dairy herd owners that would allow them to maximise the carcass weight of the progeny produced on their farms.

“If you take a dairy herd, you have maiden heifers, second calvers and mature cows. You essentially have three groups of animals. The trick is how we can maximise the beef value from the non-replacement calf crop without increasing calving difficulty.

“You can pick one type of bull for your maidens, another type of bull for your second calvers and another type of bull for your mature cow. Equally then there are three, three-week slots in the breeding season.

“For the first three weeks, you can use longer gestation bulls – like continentals that are easy calving and have massive carcass. In the first three weeks, gestation won’t make that much of a difference and the cows calve that bit easier. Then the next three weeks, use something that bit easier because the cows will have more body condition score.

“It is for the dairy herds to work the different breeds and the different sires with the different groups of females there in their herd in the different three week cycles,” she explained.

Also read: Views on dairy calf to beef action plan sought