Business Farming

Wednesday 1 October 2014

You can get a bull calf for the price of a cappuccino

Published 23/02/2014 | 02:30

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TO city folk it looks like the bargain of the year – a healthy bull calf with a pedigree as long as your arm for the price of a cappuccino.

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The calves are making just €2 a head in the sales rings down in Cork last week simply because they were born the wrong sex.

If they were females, the Holstein Crossbred calves would eventually become prolific producers of top quality milk and would be worth as much as €250 each from birth.

The trouble for dairy farmers is that if a bull calf is born by crossing a Holstein cow with a pedigree Jersey bull, the result is an animal that just doesn't cut it as a beef producer.

The high cost of feed and the inability of Crossbred Holsteins to put on weight at the same rate as the 'beefy' continental breeds such as Charolais and Simmental means they are worth less than nothing, as it costs between €15 and €50 to artificially inseminate these cows in the first place.

So the arrival of a bull calf is a disaster for the farmers who take a 50/50 gamble on producing a female that can be sold on at a handsome profit or kept in the dairy herd for years to come.

"It's true, I'm afraid. We have been selling bull calves for between €2 and €5 each. There is no market for the bull calves," Tom McCarthy of Cork Marts told the Sunday Independent.

"The main reason is that the Jersey breed in particular produces cows with great quality creamy milk, but male calves just don't make the grade as a beef animal."

Dairy farmers are currently in the middle of the calving system. And all cows have to be put in calf to ensure milk is produced the following year. No calf, no milk.

But the lottery of calves being born the wrong sex could soon be a thing of the past. The largest ever field trial of sexed semen undertaken in Ireland last year showed excellent results.

In simple terms, semen from pedigree bulls is processed to identify and isolate 'male' or 'female' sperm.

The chosen sexed semen, male or female, is then artificially inseminated.

The field trial was a success, with 90 per cent of calves identified in scans as being the chosen sex – better than mother nature's 50 per cent hit rate.

Many of those chosen female calves will be born on dairy farms in the coming weeks.

There are some drawbacks. Using sexed semen reduces conception rates and the complex science involved in producing sexed semen makes artificially inseminating cattle more expensive.

A further, smaller trial involving beef cattle is due to begin within weeks.

Dr Edward O'Riordan, the head of Teagasc's Beef Research Centre at Grange, near Dunsany, Co Meath, believes that using sexed semen has the potential to stop the glut of relatively worthless Holstein crossbred bull calves.

"On the dairy side, if the use of sexed semen becomes very reliable and takes off in this country, you could nearly guarantee that only female calves would be born," he said.

Dr Andrew Cromie, of the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, told the Sunday Independent: "The results of the field trial were most encouraging. More than 14,500 inseminations took place last year using sexed sperm. Later, when the cows and heifers were in calf, some 4,000 of them were scanned and those scans showed that some 90 per cent were the chosen sex."

Sunday Independent

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