Our Organisation Search
Quick Links
Toggle: Topics

Breeding quality calves for repeat custom in Co. Meath

Breeding quality calves for repeat custom in Co. Meath

Conor Smith milks 250 cows with his parents in Carlanstown, Co. Meath, producing 530kg of milk solids per cow last year from a herd of predominately high EBI Holstein Friesian cows. The herd’s average EBI value is €184.

Split 75% spring and 25% autumn calving, a focus has not only been placed on breeding for EBI to produce a high quality replacement heifer, but also on the beef merit of the calves produced.

Conor was one of the keynote speakers at the recent DairyBeef 500 Spring Conference, where he discussed why a focus on improving the beef merit of calves within the family’s dairy herd has been undertaken and the steps in which they are achieving this.

Conor said: “The first breeding priority for us would be to produce a high quality dairy replacement heifer. We are always breeding for a high EBI animal. We are looking for good milk solids from a medium sized cow, with positive health traits that will go back in calf. We select our lower EBI and performing cows to breed to high quality beef bulls.”

After using both conventional and sexed semen over the past three years to breed dairy replacements, this year all sexed semen will be used to breed the future generation of cows for the herd. Last year’s cull rate was 19%, so 55-60 heifer calves will be targeted. To achieve this, 120 sexed semen straws will be used, which will reduce the number of dairy matings on the farm and thus reduce the number of dairy bulls born. 100% AI is used on farm, with tail painting used pre-breeding and during the breeding season to identify heats.

On this, Conor said: “We were a bit unsure of how sexed semen was going to go and it went very well. We are very happy with it. We were wondering then why we were using conventional, so we are going 100% sexed semen now to try and keep the Friesian bull calf at a minimum and then we are changing over to beef.

“We plan to use sexed semen this year to produce all our dairy heifer replacements. To achieve this, we are planning to breed all our heifers to sexed, along with 80 cows picked on EBI and milk recording data. We are hoping to have all the heifer calves on the ground by mid to late February.”

This breeding policy has given great scope to use increased beef AI on the lower EBI cows in February, while also allowing all March and April calvers to be bred to 100% beef AI. Heifers which fail to conceive using sexed semen will be mated to easy calving Angus.

“If you sell a quality calf, you do tend to have the same person coming back to you the following year looking for more calves.”

The panel of beef bulls used, Conor explained, reflects the range of cows present within the herd, adding: “There’s some of them low for calving difficulty. There’s a range of breeds and all are selected on the Dairy Beef Index and the beef sub-index. There are some shorter gestation sires for late season use and some easy calving sires for second calvers and heifers. There are some higher beef merit animals, with a bit longer gestation – some Belgian Blues - for more mature cows, which are bred for a specific return customer.”

Table 1: Beef panel for 2023

AI CodeBDI (€)Reliability (%)Heifer calving difficulty (%)Cow calving difficulty (%)Beef sub-index value (€)
AA6682 153 67 8.8 3.4 109
AA7485 215 62 6.2 2.4 147
BB7278 104 56 12.6 6.6 124
BB8899 93 37 13.2 7.6 153
HE5346 146 91 10.9 3.5 110
HE6841 113 67 7.8 3.1 91

Continuing, he said: “There is a reason for us using these good beef bulls. We are using all AI on farm, so with a little bit of thought, it is as easy pick good bulls as it is bad bulls. We’re looking to build a good name with local buyers for producing quality calves, with reduced pressure in the calf shed if we can get calves moving at around three weeks of age. Better calves will result in better prices and give us a better chance of having repeat customers,” Conor concluded.

Pictured at the DairyBeef 500 Spring Conference in Navan were: Tommy Cow, Teagasc DairyBeef 500 advisor; Charlie Smyth, Teagasc DairyBeef 500 farmer; Fergal Maguire, Teagasc DairyBeef 500 advisor; and Conor Smith, dairy farmer.

James Dunne, Teagasc Dairy Specialist, also speaking from the conference, touched on the benefits of using sexed semen, adding: “It’s going to increase the genetic merit of that heifer replacement calf, but it is also going to reduce the number of dairy-bred bull calves on farm. That’s only going to increase the value of our calf crop and increase the beef merit if we get dairy farmers using the correct quality beef bulls.”

Sire advice – a technology available to select dairy sires – was used by dairy farmers approximately 7,000 times last year, James explained, and with this facility now available for beef sire selection, there’s an opportunity for farmers to place a greater emphasis on the beef merit of the calves produced next year.

 “Previously it would have been a one beef bull fits all type of system, whereas now there needs to be a team of bulls. There needs to be bulls suitable for maiden heifers, there needs to be bulls suitable for small cows and there needs to be bulls selected on the mature cows with a key focus on the carcass traits and it’s about that balance in the beef sub-index and the calving sub-index; not solely looking at the single figure of the DBI,” James explained.

Also read: Selecting beff sires on more than calving ease and short gestation

Also read: Watch: Identifying your herd's strengths and weaknesses ahead of breeding

Also read: Breathing new life into a calf-to-beef system in Co. Meath