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What’s new in dairy-beef systems?

What’s new in dairy-beef systems?

A Teagasc team recently met with a group of Wexford farmers to discuss the latest developments in dairy-beef production, writes Pearse Kelly, Head of Drystock Knowledge Transfer at Teagasc.

Ellen Fitzpatrick, Research Technologist at Teagasc Johnstown Castle, opened the discussion by explaining that the trials in Johnstown Castle were focusing on heifer beef production from the dairy herd because all the recent trial work on dairy calf to beef systems in Teagasc Grange has been around steer beef production systems.

“Also it has been a long time since we looked at what can be achieved from calves sired by continental breeds. Half the heifer calves in this new trial are bred from Limousin and Belgian Blue AI bulls and these will be compared to heifer calves bred from Angus and Hereford sires,” Ellen explained.

When asked why nearly all of the farmers were buying only male calves, there was a common response from the group.

Philip Murphy, a dairy-beef, suckler and tillage farmer from Campile, Co. Wexford, said: “The convenience of having all of the same type of stock puts me off buying a mixture of bulls and heifers.”

Paddy O’Brien, again from Campile, buys 110 dairy bull calves each year – mostly Friesian plus a few Angus – said he did not like buying heifers, adding: “If you have them, there is always the risk that some of them could end up going in calf if they are running with male stock.”

Pat Rowe, who purchases 135 Friesian bull calves and carries them to beef at 17-20 months, said he prefers only males because “they come into a much heavier carcass weight, with Angus and Hereford heifers often finishing at very light weights”.

However, Harry Murphy, from Ferns, Co. Wexford was the only one of the four who buys heifers, but said that is often not by choice: “If I am buying a bunch of calves from a dairy farm and there are a small number of heifers in the group, I don’t like refusing to buy them with the rest of the calves.” Harry aims to finish at least 350 dairy-beef calves each year, with most being Friesian males.

Ellen agreed that early maturing beef heifers from dairy cows often do finish at low carcass weights.

She said: “Some of the first Angus and Hereford heifers bought for the previous trials were purchased because of their breed with little investigation into their genetics.

“These finished at 19 months of age and were 243-250kg carcass weights. The early maturing heifer calves bought last year that will be finished in 2024 were bought based on having better genetics for carcass weight. We expect carcass weights increased by 15-20kg as a result.”

Harry Murphy, Paddy O’Brien, Jack Murphy, Ellen Fitzpatrick, Pat Rowe, Philip Murphy

Harry Murphy, Paddy O’Brien, Jack Murphy, Ellen Fitzpatrick, Pat Rowe and Philip Murphy pictured at Teagasc Johnstown Castle

The importance of grass

An important component in ensuring that calf-to-beef systems are profitable is maximising the amount of grass in the lifetime diet of the finished animal. Ellen explained that this is one of the big advantages of the heifer finishing systems over steer systems.

“Most of the Angus and Hereford heifers were finished off grass last year with only 14% of the grass-clover treatment requiring an indoor finishing period. No meal was fed at grass to achieve this, with only the heifers that were housed getting 4 kg of meal.”

The amount of meal fed to the heifers from when they were bought as reared calves (around 20 weeks of age) to slaughter was only circa 300kg. Calves are on a grass-only diet from the middle of June until mid-September. From mid-September onwards, calves are supplemented with 1.5kg of meal until housing in November.

Meal feeding strategies

There were different meal feeding strategies for the farmers’ calves during their first grazing season. Paddy O’Brien also stopped the meal from the middle of June to September, but does offer the calves some straw at grass if required. Some years he continues to feed meal to lighter calves until they hit a certain weight and then he stops.

Pat Rowe said: “I feed a small amount of meal to calves throughout the summer as it can often be hard to get enough grass into young calves.”

Paddy O’Brien agreed that grass was one of the most important management practices to get right in a calf to beef system, adding: “I am a big believer in giving calves fresh grass every day. What they don’t eat I let older cattle clean up.”

Different sward types

One of the major questions that Ellen’s work is trying to answer is how well do calf to beef systems perform on different sward types, and can we reduce the amount of nitrogen that we need to spread, even on heavily stocked farms.

Multi-species swards that have been growing in Johnstown for a number of years are being grazed in this trial, along with swards that only have perennial ryegrass and also perennial ryegrass swards that have a reasonable amount of white and red clover in them.

The multi-species swards (a mixture of grass, red clover, white clover, chicory and plantain) and the clover swards get only half the nitrogen per year that the grass only swards are given (75 vs. 150kg N/ha).

Jack Murphy, a Drystock Advisor based in Johnstown Castle, pointed out from the Johnstown Castle Trial how in their first grazing season, the calves grazing multi-species swards gained 0.2kg/ head/day more compared to their counterparts grazing conventional grass swards, a really significant difference.

Ellen said: “The three different sward types all grew very similar amounts of herbage across the year. Calves grazing in their first year grew significantly faster on the multi-species swards compared to the other two swards. We saw this over three different grazing seasons.

“There was no difference between the multi-species sward and the clover sward in animal performance in their second year at grass, as yearlings. The difference in performance in the calves was so great that it was obvious when looking at the calves on the multi-species that they were much bigger calves at the end of the summer compared to all of the other calves.”

All four farmers were impressed with the performance of the calves on the multi-species swards in Teagasc Johnstown Castle and could see the potential benefits of incorporating these swards into their own systems – even if it is only on a small proportion of the farm to begin with to graze young calves on. Ellen explained that it is not fully understood yet why calves, in particular, benefit from these swards but that it is likely due to improved digestibility of the forage. Future research will focus on this.

BEEF2024

Dairy calf to beef systems, including the work that is being carried out in Teagasc Johnstown Castle, will feature strongly at BEEF2024. Ellen Fitzpatrick and other researchers, who are working in Teagasc on topics of interest to farmers who are rearing dairy-bred beef calves through to finish, will be available to speak to on the day, along with DairyBeef 500 specialists and advisors. A number of calf-to-beef demonstration farmers from the DairyBeef 500 programme will also be present to share their experiences with different finishing systems.

Dr Paul Crosson, Beef Enterprise Leader; Dr Orla Keane, Research Officer; and Pearse Kelly, Head of Drystock Knowledge Transfer, provide an insight as to what to expect on the day in this short clip:

Find out more about BEEF2024 here.

This article first appeared in the May/June issue of Today’s Farm. Access the full publication here.