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‘Our ultimate aim is to try and breed the best beef animals that we can’

‘Our ultimate aim is to try and breed the best beef animals that we can’

Calf quality is often mooted as a reason for the high attrition rates of dairy-beef producers nationally, with just 39% of those engaged in this system in year one doing so at the end of year five.

Conor O’Farrell, who milks over 200 cows with his brother Pat in Co. Tipperary, highlighted the practices they are implementing on their farm to produce a better quality beef calf at the recent series of DairyBeef 500 Spring Conferences. “Our ultimate aim,” he said, “is to try and breed the best beef animals we can to try and make them attractive for beef farmers”.

“If it is as simple as picking a bull that will deliver more, if that’s more for the calf to beef producer, they are more likely to come back to me. Ultimately what I want is to breed calves that people will come back to us as repeat customers.”

Giving a brief background to the herd, O’Farrell pointed to a focus on breeding for high EBI and solids, while milking a herd of medium-sized cows that are positive for both health and calving indexes.

“Our primary priority is dairy cow quality and our breeding plan would be built around that. We’ve moved to using selective breeding so that means we pick out what number of cows we want to breed the number of replacements that we want. It is leaving us with roughly half the herd available for dairy-beef selection.”

Pat O'Farrell speaking at the DB500 conference in Clonmel

The herd’s calving pattern is quite compact, with the bulk of the herd calving in February, while also having a desirable calving interval and low culling rate. Dairy AI is used on all replacement heifers, which also increases the number of cows that are available for beef breeding.

“All our dairy calves would be born in February,” he commented. “With selective breeding, we are finding now that we’ve cows that we are putting to beef breeds that will be calving in February. We are not breeding as we used to which was just breeding the first month or five weeks completely dairy and then switching to beef. This was leading to our first beef calf coming on the ground somewhere around the end of the first week of March. This year, of the first 15 cows to calves, 50% of them would be to beef breeds. That’s purely down to selective breeding. The cows that would be bred to dairy AI are picked out; it doesn’t matter when they come in the three weeks, they are bred to dairy and all other cows are bred to beef,” he explained.

The use of this selective breeding policy, he noted, has also resulted in beef calves arriving earlier in the season, which would potentially make them more attractive to calf to beef buyers. In addition, the use of sexed semen within the herd, which is increasing yearly, also means that more cows will be available for beef inseminations in the future.

“Depending on how we get on with sexed semen, it is going to bring us to a place where we have over half the herd available for beef insemination. We are looking at this stage to just put enough dairy replacements on the ground and to minimise the number of dairy bull calves we have," he said.

Using beef breeds

With more cows coming available for beef breeding, O’Farrell noted that the primary focus will remain on calving ease and gestation length when it comes to beef bull selection, but there’s scope within those parameters to pick bulls with higher DairyBeef Index (DBI) values to add value to the calf.

“The last year or two, we started dabbling with the DBI and we just started picking bulls off the high DBI list. Our priority would be reasonably short gestation – depending on the AI date – and ease of calving. When you look at the DBI list, there is nearly always a bull that fits those criteria higher up the DBI list than just picking a random Angus or Hereford. We said why not pick those bulls instead of just picking random bulls.”

90% of all cows in the herd are currently bred using AI – either dairy or beef – and stock bulls are used for final 10%. The genetics and beef values of these stock bulls will also be examined in the future to try and breed a more desirable animal for the beef finisher.

In terms of the beef breeds identified for the breeding season ahead, the brothers have a beef bull team consisting of Belgian Blue – which will be targeted at mature cows with zero history of calving difficulty - Angus, Hereford and Aubrac. This panel of bulls, outlined in table 1, reflects the range of cows in the herd and are low to moderate in calving difficulty. The shorter gestation sires are for late season use, while easy-calving sires will be targeted at repeat heifers and smaller cows.

Table 1: DairyBeef Index values of the 2023 bull team

BreedDBI (€)Calving sub-index (€)Beef sub-index (€)Gestation

Dairy cow 

calving difficulty (%)

Carcass weight (kg)
Aubrac  127  13.27  113.65  0.6  3.67  18.2 
Angus  119  58.9  60.43  -3.8  2.34  8.2 
Belgian Blue  118  -13.45  131.75  0.2  6.22  22.4 
Angus  115  62.03  52.52  -3.8  2.48  9.1 
Angus  112  58.24  53.36  -2.5  2.14  10.4 

Read more: Opportunity to 'flick a switch' and create new approach to dairy beef breeding