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Opportunity to ‘flick a switch’ and create new approach to dairy beef breeding

Opportunity to ‘flick a switch’ and create new approach to dairy beef breeding

An opportunity exists to improve the quality of beef being produced from the dairy herd, but it’s going to take buy in from dairy farmers nationally.

That was one of the many key messages delivered by Dr. Nicky Byrne, research officer in dairy-beef systems at Teagasc Grange, who spoke at the recent series of DairyBeef 500 Spring Conferences.

“We have the opportunity through the use of high genetic merit sires and AI to rapidly improve the quality of the calf group. We can more or less flick a switch and start working on improving the calf crop straightaway. It is something that is really within our control,” he told the dairy and beef farmer audience.

Giving a background to dairy-beef production nationally, which involves approximately 1.1 million animals, Dr. Byrne noted that there’s potential to not only improve the beef merit of the 33% of calves entering domestic dairy-beef production systems, but also those which have historically entered early-slaughter or export arrangements.

“Calf exports are quite volatile and we probably need to move away from our reliance on them and put the steps in place on our dairy farms that we can move those calves off farm in a timely fashion to a local calf rearer. We need a new approach. We need a greater integration of the needs of both dairy and beef sectors,” he said.

Despite some of the negative press associated with dairy-beef production – often referring to falling carcass weights and conformation through dairy dams with low beef merits – Dr. Byrne commented that the best way to improve the quality and add value to a dairy-beef animal is through focusing on carcass conformation and carcass weight of the sire.

“If we used a better bull on a lower-quality dairy cow in terms of their beef merits to counteract some of those negatives, there is potential irrespective of cow type. We can make improvements, but we need to focus on using really high quality sires to improve or bring up the quality of that calf crop.”

Further galvanising this point, and highlighting the importance of identifying sires with suitable beef production traits, Dr. Byrne highlighted a previous study undertaken by Teagasc Moorepark.

“Work from Alan Twomey shows that there is an overlap in carcass weight genetic merit of the top end of the Holstein Friesians and the lower end of the Aberdeen Angus animals in AI. If low carcass weight bulls are used on that inferior cow, we are not adding a lot to the scenario. We need to be getting those outlier bulls – those animals that are available that offer a lot more carcass weight and still have very little impact on calving difficulty or gestation length, but could counteract some of the negative influence of the [lower merit] dairy dam.”

In terms of identifying these sires, Dr. Byrne pointed towards the use of the DairyBeef Index.

“The DairyBeef Index is an excellent tool at identifying suitable sires for use on the dairy herd. It is made up of calving traits, carcass traits and the carbon sub-index and is central to generating animals of high Commercial Beef Value.”

For beef producers entering the market this spring, Dr. Byrne stressed the importance of using the Commercial Beef Value – which is an estimate of an animal’s own performance.

“If we know that, we can identify the best animals to bring into our farm system. It focuses on efficiency traits such as carcass weight, conformation, feed intake and age of slaughter. It is the traits that can influence the profitability of beef farms and it is going to be a really important one.”

In terms of what impact selecting these higher merit animals would have on the performance on beef farmers, Dr. Byrne presented as summary of his own research work over the past four years which examined the differences in carcass performance of Aberdeen Angus steers with varying CBV values – broken down from very low to very high (Table 1).

“There’s a 21kg advantage of the very high Commercial Beef Value animals versus the very low and they were able to achieve that 21kg extra carcass weight nine days earlier. That just shows the power of genetics – managed under the exact same farm system, with a high pasture diet - we could still get that by just changing the bull. So there is massive potential for everyone,” he concluded.

Table 1: Summary of Grange Aberdeen Angus steer performance (four years)

CBV categoryCarcass weight (kg)Age at slaughter (days)Conformation (1-15)
Very low 285 655 5.2
Low 297 649 5.5
Average 303 653 5.6
High 309 648 5.6
Very high 306 647 5.6
Different 21 -9 +0.4