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Improving beef potential from the dairy herd

Improving beef potential from the dairy herd

Regardless of cow type, there is the potential within dairy herds for a better beef breeding policy, Dr. Nicky Byrne, dairy beef researcher in Teagasc Grange, told the recent DairyBeef 500 Spring Conference in Navan, Co. Meath.

“There is massive variation in the quality of the calf crop coming from the dairy herd, but we are in a very lucky position in that we have a lot of control over that. If we identify and use better genetics that we know work, we can get very rapid and widespread improvement in the quality of the calf crop,” he explained.

Dr. Byrne explained that a number of tools are available to breed animals of higher beef and carcass merit, adding: “The Dairy Beef Index (DBI) is a selection tool to identify suitable sires for use on the dairy herd. For them to be of use on the dairy herd, they have to have a respectable calving difficulty, offer a short gestation length and low levels of calf mortality.

“As well as that, if you want to have more saleable calves that are going to generate a positive margin for the person who purchases them, there has to be a very strong emphasis on the carcass traits within the DBI. We can get a high DBI bull, with a high overall index, but they may not necessarily be exceptionally good on carcass traits, so we have to be careful on how we select animals to design the calves we want," Dr. Byrne said.

Conor Smith, dairy farmer, Dr Nicky Byrne, Teagasc, and Fergal Maguire, Teagasc, pictured at the DairyBeef 500 Spring Conference

He illustrated this point using data from dairy-beef animals slaughtered in Teagasc Grange, where Angus steers sired by bulls with similar DBI values – but differing on beef sub-index – were compared. These animals were classified as being ‘high’ or ‘low’ for beef sub-index (table 1). The ‘high’ animals had higher Commercial Beef Values (CBV), grew better throughout their lifetime, had a slightly shorter finishing period and produced heavier carcasses of a slighter higher grade. They also returned €107/head more at slaughter when compared to the ‘low’ beef sub-index animals.

Table 1: Performance of Angus steers in Teagasc Grange with differing beef merit values

Animal groupDBIBeef sub-indexCalving difficulty (mature cows)Gestation length


(high beef sub-index Angus)

€121 €107 3.7 -0.5


(low beef sub-index Angus)

€124 €65 2.4 -1.9
Animal groupCBVADG (kg)

Slaughter age


Finishing days

Carcass weight 


Carcass conf.Carcass fatValue
High €95 0.91 20.7 70 312 O+/O= 3+/4- €1,639
Low €61 0.87 20.8 73 294 O= 3+ €1,532

On the basis of these results, Dr. Byrne encouraged dairy farmers to ensure that they are picking a very balanced bull under the DBI, with a minimum contribution of 50% coming from the beef sub-index value of the DBI's overall value. By selecting bulls that meet the dairy farm’s calving ease and gestation requirements, along with focusing on the beef sub-index of the DBI, calves with higher Commercial Beef Values can be generated.

“It’s about striking a balance. There are animals that tick all these boxes and achieve a better overall outcome,” he explained. By using the DBI, he said: “It’s a sure way of future-proofing both our dairy herd and beef herd. High merit beef genetics are a low cost proven technology. This is something we can all go home and change and have a different outcome next year.”

Commercial Beef Value

Farmers purchasing calves this year were also urged to seek information on the beef merit of their potential purchases and the Commercial Beef Value is a tool which makes this task easier.

“The Commercial Beef Value is a new selection tool – which takes into account the dam and sire’s genetic potential – and gives us an estimate of that animal’s own potential performance. It takes out all the calving traits that aren’t important for the beef finishing herd. It focuses on carcass weight, conformation, age of slaughter, proportion of animals in spec and feed intake – the big drivers of profit in beef production systems. It’s not a breeding index, it’s an index to identify the most profitable animal for our beef herd.”

Commenting on how animals produced through Grange have performed when their CBV values are examined, he added: “The very high animals were killed 21kg heavier and nine days earlier than the very low category – extra carcass but at younger ages and that is what is on the table for us all if we use better genetics. We would have that and we would achieve that across the nationally herd."

Photo caption: Conor Smith, dairy farmer, Dr. Nicky Byrne, Teagasc Grange, and Fergal Maguire, DairyBeef 500 advisor, pictured at the DariyBeef 500 Spring Conference in Navan, Co. Meath.

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

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