Teagasc’s EveryCalf Project is evaluating whether collaboration can increase the value of male progeny from the dairy herd
The Teagasc EveryCalf Project is evaluating the potential for profitable dairy calf-to-beef systems in collaboration with commercial rearing farmers.
In the programme, 10 drystock farmers contract-rear 400 male progeny from Teagasc dairy farms, from three weeks of age to 14 months (mid-April of the subsequent year) or 330kg liveweight (LW).
Thereafter the animals are moved to a grazer and finishing unit for slaughter at 22 months. All animals are weighed every six weeks by Teagasc to monitor performance.
The project will run for three years (2020-22).
A complete financial analysis will be published to assess the potential to increase the value from male progeny from the dairy herd.
The mean birth weight of the calves in 2020 was 37kg; they were moved on average at 24 days of age (52kg LW) to the rearing farms. All calves were weaned at 63 days when eating in excess of 1kg of concentrate per day.
On average, calves gained 0.85kg LW/day during the grazing season on a predominantly grass-only diet.
During the winter period, up to mid-February, average daily LW gain was 0.7kg, resulting in a mean LW of 343kg by April 15, 2021 — the end of the study period.
On average over the measurement period from birth to 14 months, the group achieved an average daily LW gain of 0.75kg, exceeding the targets.
The preliminary results suggest that there is real potential for high-quality grassland management on commercial farms to deliver excellent animal performance in dairy calf-to-beef systems.
Paul Sweeney, who farms just outside Milford in Donegal, operates a 35-cow autumn-calving suckler herd, with calves sold at the weanling stage around 10 months.
“The autumn-calving herd frees up time for me to concentrate on calf-rearing in the spring,” he says.
This year he got a delivery of 50 male calves that were on average 24 days and weighed 46kg on March 3.
The calves were a mixture of Holstein Friesians, Friesian cross, Jersey-Friesian cross, Aberdeen Angus cross and Limousin cross.
They had travelled over 450km and were given an electrolyte on the evening of arrival.
The calves were put on once-a-day feeding from 28 days of age. They were fed four litres of milk replacer and were given ad-lib access to concentrates.
All calves were weaned at 63 days regardless of weight, as they were eating on average 1.5kg of concentrates at that stage.
They were turned out to grass as soon as weather conditions were suitable and were fed concentrates for three weeks post-turnout. They had also access to straw in the field.
Since then they have been on a grass-only diet and are currently grazing silage after grass, with temporary post and reel fencing allowing the calves to be moved every 2-3 days to fresh grass.
On June 15 and the calves were on average 113kg (range 92-142kg) — an average daily gain of 0.64kg since arrival. On July 30 — the most recent weighing — they averaged 151kg and had gained 0.83kg/day since the previous weighing and 0.70kg/day since arrival.
Last year, with similar management practices, Paul achieved a weight gain of 0.8kg/day for the first summer at grass up until housing in mid-October.
“The calves have been extremely healthy — I have only treated two calves with scour tablets since arrival,” says Paul.
All calves were vaccinated against pneumonia and clostridia and received a dose for coccidiosis five days prior to transport. Paul administered all the booster injections and treated them with an anthelmintic for lungworms at the first observation of coughing.
“The calves were castrated on the August 10 without any visual effect on performance,” he says.
The plan between now and the April 15, 2022 is to achieve the target weight gain of 0.70kg per day and do so as economically as possible.
Paul’s focus is on grassland management, calf health and silage quality.
He is already thinking of where the weanlings will be grazing next spring. Early turnout to quality grass in the spring will deliver the highest weight gain and at the most economical cost per day.
“Similar to last year I will be closing off the drier paddocks near the yard on time to ensure adequate covers in the spring,” he says.
“I will also have the bonus of an additional 14 acres that I have recently drained and reseeded. This spring weather and ground conditions were against us for early grazing — the calves had to be rehoused on three occasions.”
He still achieved a weight gain of 0.82kg/day over this period — higher than the gain when the animals were housed full-time.
The poorest weight gain occurred over the late housing period from February to turnout, at 0.46kg/day.
This was a reflection of silage quality, which was 71 DMD at that time. Paul has taken steps to improve silage quality this year and will get the pit tested in the next few weeks.
Good-quality silage in excess of 75 DMD will deliver winter weight gains of at least 0.6kg/day without concentrate input. This was achieved by many of the participants in the project last winter.
Paul will reintroduce concentrates to the calves from mid-September at the rate of 1kg per head per day. Research from the Grange trials shows that the introduction of concentrates at this stage gives a good economic response especially if weather conditions are wet and grass dry matters are low.
The weanlings will receive a booster vaccination for pneumonia one month out from housing and will be treated for stomach worms, fluke and lice at housing.
Tom Coll is a Teagasc business and technology advisor based in Mohill, Co Leitrim