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Mapping the direction of travel of dairy beef systems

Mapping the direction of travel of dairy beef systems

An increase in the national dairy herd since milk quota removal in 2015 has changed the dynamic within the Irish beef industry. Animals of dairy origin now account for ~60% of Ireland’s beef throughput.

Through a combination of the correct genetics, calf health optimisation and grassland management, these animals – of which approximately 1.1 million are available for beef production annually – have the potential to deliver profitable and sustainable systems.

Last week, as part of the launch of a consultation on a 10-point action plan to support dairy calf to beef systems in Ireland, Teagasc Research Officer, Dr Nicky Byrne highlighted the key technologies currently available to progress dairy beef systems in Ireland.

Nicky said: “Improving the genetic quality of dairy beef animals is a really important step to release the untapped potential that dairy calf to beef has to offer. Calf health is important to the operation of a successful calf to beef system. If we don’t have healthy animals, we are not going to be able to fully avail of animals’ genetic potential.

“When we get all those things to come together, we know that we have a system that can be built around the efficient utilisation of grazed grass. If we look at our research systems, about 85-90% of the lifetime feed requirement for dairy calf to beef animals is grown on the farm. That’s a combination of grazed grass and high quality grass silage and an important credential to gaining access to high value export markets.”

Additionally, research work in Teagasc Grange has shown that dairy calf to beef systems can be very efficient in terms of the level of carbon per kilogram of beef produced.

Availability of calves

Due to the expansion of the Irish dairy herd since milk quota removal, there are now ~40% more dairy cows in the country. Commenting on this, Nicky said: “We went through a period of very rapid expansion and we are now at a point where we have 1.6 million calvings, predominately taking place in the spring.

“Now in excess of about 60% of cattle processed in Irish beef plants are born within the dairy herd, so what happens in the dairy herd has a massive implication of what happens in the beef industry and it is really important that we launch this action plan so that we move in a positive direction on the back of this cow resource that we have.”

With the exclusion of replacement heifers, this leaves approximately 1.15 million dairy-beef calves available per annum. Pointing to statistics from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine’s Animal Identification and Movement System from 2022, Nicky explained that 26% of these calves were reared on the farm of birth, a further 36% moved farm-to-farm and 22% were sold through the marts. Some 14% of these calves were exported and a further 2% entered early slaughter systems – the industry has since implemented measures to cease the latter practice.

Commenting further on these statistics, Nicky said: “We have a cohort of calves, and these are typically our lower value dairy male calves, that rely on a live export market and we have some really low quality calves entering into early slaughter calf systems.

“That is the low hanging fruit and we have to look at strategies to convert these low value dairy male calves into high carcass merit beef cross calves because we can see from our research systems that there is a very positive outlet for those.”

Dr Nicky Byrne speaking at the dairy calf to beef seminar in Portlaoise

Dr Nicky Byrne speaking at the laucnh of a consulation process on the 10-point action plan to support dairy calf to beef

Strategic moves

The first strategy Nicky touched on to pick this low hanging fruit was a further uptake of sexed semen on dairy farms nationally. Approximately 275,000 straws of sex-sorted semen were available for the 2023 breeding season, with this number expected to increase in 2024. If the dairy industry accelerates its use of sexed semen, using approximately 800,000 straws annually, Nicky noted that this would reduce the number of dairy-bred males to ~50,000 head – approximately five times lower than the number born on Irish farms in the spring of 2023.

The uptake of sexed semen will be a major focus of the 10-point action plan and its uptake will be strengthened by research work from ICBF showing that sexed semen is now 95.4% as effective in achieving pregnancies as conventional semen and sexed semen straws are 90.4% effective at delivering females.

Also read: Improved pregnancy rates from sexed semen

The use of sexed semen alone will not deliver the required benefits in terms of carcass merit of progeny from the dairy herd, Nicky commented, and dairy farmers must pay heed to the Dairy Beef Index when selecting suitable beef sires. This index identifies beef bulls suitable for the dairy herd on the basis of calving traits, carcass traits and carbon traits. 38% of the emphasis of the traits included is placed on calving traits – such as difficulty and gestation length – while approximately 60% of the traits pertain to beef animal quality characteristics and production efficiency.

Dairy farmers should prioritise the use of the Dairy Beef Index when making beef breeding decisions on their farms, he explained, and bulls of suitable quality should be used to maximise the Commercial Beef Value (CBV) of the calves produced. The CBV is a relatively new tool available to beef farmers to aid them in the selection of dairy beef calves of improved beef potential.

The CBV is a euro value attributed to all cattle that are likely to beef finished. A star and euro value rating system, it is available under three categories or animal – suckler, beef x dairy and dairy x dairy. On average, cattle that have a high CBV will be faster growing, grade better at slaughter, meet market specifications at a younger age and will not eat as much per kilogram of liveweight gained.

Also read: Breeding better calves for sale

Does breeding for better calves work?

Nicky also delved into the vast bank of research conducted in dairy beef in Teagasc Grange over recent years, presenting trial results which showed that breeding for better calves from the dairy herd does actually work.

Comparing Angus steers of varying CBV values (€95 versus €61), the research work showed that the higher CBV Angus had a higher average daily gain, where slaughtered slightly younger following a three day shorter finishing period and produced heavier carcasses of higher conformation. The trial also compared the performance of both Angus groups against Holstein Friesian steers. Compared under a systems trial, these high Angus also achieved a higher net margin per hectare, being €224/ha and €540/ha ahead of both the low Angus and Holstein Friesian systems on a net margin per hectare basis.

Further details of this research work is available here.

For more information on the 10-point action plan on supporting dairy calf to beef systems in Ireland, click here.

Also read: Beef calves coming earlier in the dairy calving season

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