The production of young bulls compared to steers results in one third extra beef output during the finishing period, for the same feed input.
In addition, because of slaughter at a younger age than steers, young bulls result in far lower greenhouse gas emissions. In a Grange study, late-maturing continental breed (about 5/6) steers and bulls gained 23pc more weight during the finishing period per unit of energy consumed than Holstein-Friesians.
A higher kill-out (57.7 v 52.2pc) and a greater proportion of meat in the carcass (71.7 v 66.8pc) resulted in meat produced per unit of energy consumed being 51pc greater for the beef than dairy breeds.
The work in progress at the moment on residual feed intake at Grange will determine if further efficiency of production can be obtained from selection within beef breeds.
Maximising grass in the diet is key to making profit in Irish suckling. This demands a 365-day calving interval. Calving date can be brought forward where adequate supplies of leafy grass are provided and management is good. In natural service, watch out for infertile or low fertility bulls.
Breeding records are essential to check on the fertility of the bull and for predicting calving dates. With AI, frequent observation (up to five times daily) is important. Other aids to heat detection include running steers with the herd, tail-painting and a vasectomised bull with a chin-ball marking device. Studies carried out in the US have shown that the presence of a bull with the herd reduced the time from calving to first oestrous by six to 16 days. Research in Ireland has shown that calf removal from the cow and twice daily access for suckling also reduced the period from calving to first oestrous. First calvers, particularly when first calving is at two years, are slower to show oestrous than mature cows and need extra feeding. The role of heat synchronisation is limited.
Successful suckler systems depend on maximising the use of grazed grass. The importance of attaining good individual animal performance at pasture cannot be over-emphasised.
However, it is not just the number of days spent at grass that is important -- which varies considerably with location, soil type and between years -- but the actual amount of weight gain attained during the grazing season. Studies at Grange have shown that over-grazing to very low grass heights results in reductions in animal performance. While there is a balance between production per animal and per hectare, it must be kept in mind that because grazed grass is so cheap compared with the alternatives, a certain level of under-utilisation is acceptable in order to maximise performance, particularly for growing and finishing animals.
Having a closed herd helps reduce losses from disease. However, such herds could suffer major problems if infection was introduced.
Replacements should always be brought in at the calf stage or as breeding animals and isolated from the main herd with tests and vaccinations undertaken as prescribed by your vet.
Introduction of cows prior to calving into an existing herd should never be contemplated. Trace elements are better given orally than with an injection.
Vaccinations against BVD, Lepto and IBR will work in the short term but eradication is a better long-term policy.
A major development in recent years was the agreement between beef producers and processors for payment based on meat yield for steer and heifer carcasses. This followed studies at Grange clarifying the relationship between meat yield with carcass conformation and fat scores.
Long-term Irish beef farming viability will depend on substantially improved returns for producers. EU payments must be based on current production rather than historical animal numbers. Young bulls must be included in the beef quality payment grid and in the Beef Quality Assurance Scheme.
Young bulls were also included in the Grange study relating meat yield to carcass conformation and fat scores and the results were similar to those with steers and heifers. An active research programme is essential for future progress. Research priorities must be identified.
The most critically important research areas can be identified by a questionnaire to top beef farmers. The studies can then be undertaken by researchers knowledgeable in the area who are properly supported and have a commitment to the industry's future.
The principles for ensuring a successful research team are no different to that of a successful sports team as in Kilkenny hurling and Leinster rugby. A competent manager and his staff are provided with adequate support and not subjected to outside interference.
Sensational developments often based on inadequate research and not adequately examined in the context of long-term sustainability, tend to undermine confidence in research and development.
Farm organisations, beef processors, Department of Agriculture, Teagasc, ICBF, Bord Bia and universities, all have a role to play in the future of Irish beef. Maximum progress is dependant on the various sectors working together rather than criticising efforts by other sectors of the industry.
Dr Michael Drennan recently retired from his post of leading beef research scientist at Teagasc Grange. The prices in the quality payment grid are based on his research work