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Planning for purchasing Dairy beef calves


We are now at the point of the year where peak dairy calf numbers are starting to appear in marts and on farm for sale. Alan Dillon, Teagasc Beef specialist, discusses the factors farmers need to consider before calf purchase.

Prices for calves typically take a drop around now with the increased supply seen from mid February on. Farmers need to consider a number of factors before purchasing:

  • Housing
  • Management practices
  • Weight targets
  • System planning
  • Financial planning

Housing requirements

Housing requirements for dairy bred calves needs to be able to provide a warm environment of around 15-20 degrees celcius with good airflow. Draughty damp sheds should be avoided and a sloped floor (1:20) allowing water to drain away to a channel is essential to avoid a build up of ammonia in the straw. Calf space requirements will increase as they grow also so take this into account when planning for pen sizes. Plan for 1.5 m2 per calf on arrival increasing to near 3 m2 per calf nearing weaning.

Management practices

Straw bedding must be kept clean and fresh with a deep bed needed for young calves to nest and keep warm. Allow 20kg per calf per week of straw. Peat bedding has been used in the past but the nature of this material doesn’t allow calves to nest so can create a cold environment for calves. Vaccination of calves against RSV and Pi3 viruses is recommended after calves arrive on farm.

Weight targets

Reaching weight targets is essential for calf to beef systems to be profitable. Calves should achieve 0.7 kg per day over the first 12 weeks of life until weaning. Introducing meal early and building calves up to eating 1kg per day at weaning will help develop the rumen and allow calves to achieve target weights at grass once weaning is complete.

System planning

Typically dairy calf to beef systems show the greatest level of profitability once the stock are carried though to finish. To achieve this requires a lot of planning. Adequate housing must be in place for up to 2 winters along with sufficient land and silage stocks to cover up to 24 months. Entering this system for the first time can put a strain on cashflow as you are waiting 2 years to get a return on your initial investment. Having a cash flow budget in place and having credit facilities with your bank in place can help alleviate financial pressure on the farm.

Financial planning

Calf purchase price can have one of the biggest bearings on whether the system is profitable or not. Calf prices for beef bred calves this year have increased and leave a question mark over whether a margin will be achieved in 2 years’ time when they are slaughtered. Analysis from the Teagasc Green Acres Programme has shown how some of the early maturing breeds in particular are costing in excess of what is likely to leave a margin in comparison to Friesian and Holstein calves, (20% of final animal value for early maturing vs 11% for Friesian). Table 1 outlines this below.

Table 1: Green Acres purchase price vs carcass value

More information on Calf Rearing and Welfare can be found here