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Beefing up your efforts

Beefing up your efforts

A combined effort to improve calf quality & health will support higher performance allowing earlier age at slaughter, furthering the sustainability of grass-based dairy & beef systems. Nicky Byrne & Donall Fahy, Teagasc, discuss the key actions to maximise the potential of the entire calf crop.


  • High merit beef sires can help maximise the benefits of key reproductive technologies such as sexed semen.
  • A well devised and implemented health plan is key to maximise the potential of the entire calf crop.
  • A combined effort to improve calf quality and health will support higher performance allowing earlier age at slaughter, furthering the sustainability of grass-based dairy and beef systems.


Dairy bred progeny account for 57% of the cattle processed in Irish meat plants. While the numbers of dairy-beef animals has increased in recent years due to the expansion of the dairy herd, there has been a decrease in carcass conformation score and weight. Grass-based dairy and dairy-beef systems have similar production principles, focused on maximising product value and output/ha, through the optimisation of animal genetics, health and grassland nutrition. Suboptimum performance across these key areas is partially responsible for the high attrition rate in the number of farmers rearing dairy calves.

Dairy farmers can contribute to improved dairy-beef performance by maximising the genetic and health potential of calves and their positive contribution to both beef and dairy sectors. In return for this effort, dairy farmers will have a more ‘saleable’ non-replacing calf crop, securing repeat custom over time and departure of calves off farm earlier in the spring, reducing pressure on housing and labour.

Use of beef sires

Improved reproductive efficiency of the dairy herd creates an opportunity to increase the use of high beef merit sires from the start of the breeding season. Dairy-beef enterprises favour earlier born calves due to their higher level of performance driven by their ability to better utilise grazed grass over the first grazing season. However, these earlier born calves are generally low carcass merit dairy males. Fertile herds using sexed semen to generate replacements from elite cows can replace low carcass merit dairy males with beef X dairy calves, however, high beef merit sires must be used to realise the full value of sexed semen. Although beef sires offer many efficiencies, much variation exists in their suitability for use on the dairy herd and their carcass traits. The Dairy Beef Index (DBI) is a valuable tool to identify individual sires for use on the dairy herd, which will maintain calving performance (gestation length, calving difficulty and mortality), while offering greater terminal efficiency to finishers. Purchasers of dairy-beef calves will and should focus on the beef sub-index of the sires DBI, ensuring this contributes to 50% of the overall index, as this combines traits of greatest economic importance to their system, such as carcass weight, conformation and fat, and feed intake. Importantly the DBI is an across breed evaluation, identifying the best individuals, and as a result, a greater range of breeds will be used on the dairy herd from earlier in the season, ultimately reducing the seasonality in supply of beef from the dairy herd.

Calf health

Calf health status explains much of the variation in lifetime performance and profit potential. As the availability of dairy-beef calves increases, rearer’s will become more selective in the herds and individual calves purchased into dairy-beef systems. Specialist calf rearer’s are focused on reducing the number of herds that they purchase calves from, selecting herds with a well devised and implemented herd health plan and proven calf performance. Preference is given to herds who vaccinate cows against infectious scours and implement strict colostrum management across the entire calf crop, ensuring sufficient quantity of high quality colostrum is given within the first two hours of life and up until they are transitioned on to a milk replacer/whole milk diet. This will ensure calves immunity is optimised and that they grow to their potential to maximise body weight when sold off-farm. Weight for age and body condition are important factors for calf purchasers, typically calves are traded off-farm at 21 days of age and should weigh in excess of 50 kg. From this point the objective of the rearing process is to transition the calf from pre-ruminant to ruminant by increasing the solid feed intake. The health of each calf should be assessed, only purchasing those who have/are:

  • A dry navel, free from swelling or discharge
  • No discharge from eyes or nose
  • No temperature or laboured breathing
  • Bright and alert
  • Free from scour
  • Well hydrated, displaying elasticity of the skin.

Practical implications

Dairy farmers have the opportunity to add value to the non-replacing calf crop from conception through to departure off-farm by enhancing their genetic and health potential. This added value shouldn’t solely be seen as an opportunity for higher calf prices, but one to futureproof dairy and beef systems in terms of financial, environmental and social sustainability. High beef merit and healthy dairy-beef calves have the best ability to meet growth and carcass targets at reduced ages of slaughter within a grass-based production system. This will play an important role in achieving Irish agriculture’s Green House Gas emissions reduction targets. Dairy farmers should pay close attention to the beef merit index when choosing high DBI bulls.

This article was produced as part of the two-day Virtual Dairy Conference 2021 which took place on 23 and 24 November.

The complete Dairy Conference Proceedings can be viewed here and the individual articles will be published on Teagasc Daily throughout the week.