Farm Ireland

Tuesday 11 December 2018

Sourcing the right calves essential for a profitable calf to beef system

Sourcing the correct calf is critical for a viable calf to beef system. Know what you want and have a purchasing plan in place.

Buying the wrong calf will cost you a lot of time and money in the long run through higher mortality, poor performance, increased veterinary costs and longer finishing times.

The aim should be to rear a healthy animal with minimal mortality and optimal growth rates. All these factors will be affected by the calf you buy.

Participating farmers in the Green Acres Calf to Beef programme source their calves from numerous different sources.

With the continued increase in the national dairy herd over the last number of years there will be large numbers of calves available again once the calving season hits full swing over the next few weeks.

Sourcing options

Calves may be purchased directly from the farm.

This can be a local arrangement where a dairy farmer is able to supply large numbers to the beef farmer at an agreed price.

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This can benefit both sides as the dairy farmer can offload a large number of calves very quickly without having to spend time going to and from marts, exposing the animals to diseases.

It also reduces labour requirements on his own farm.

The beef farmer has a prior knowledge of the health status and vaccination protocol of the dairy farm and also the knowledge of whether colostrum intake was adequate or not.

He now has a large number of his calves to rear from minimum sources, thereby reducing disease and cross contamination of stock.


Marts are another option where the beef farmer can buy only the calves he wants and at a price suitable to him.

If available on the day, a large number of even weight and age calves can be grouped together.

The downside are the disease risks and stress associated with mixing large numbers of other animals, plus the time involved in attending the mart, particularly if there are a lot of other essential works to be carried out at the home farm.


Agents provide a very convenient service to beef farmers who don't have the time to go to marts or other farms to source their calves.

The agent can very quickly put together a bunch of calves to be reared. Building up a good relation with an agent is essential so that he/she can source the type of calf you require and at a price that is agreeable to both parties.

Again the disadvantages of this system are, there are calves coming from a number of different sources with no knowledge of herd health or colostrum management.

Calves have often spent a long time travelling and this may lead to additional stress. Similar to marts there are transport costs, fees and levies to pay.

Sourcing checklist

There are a number of areas to look at when selecting your calf.


  • Ideally calves should be three to four weeks of age, but at least a minimum of two weeks.
  • Calves should be at least 50kgs when moved to your farm.
  • Buy from a reputable source. The more information and details you have about the calf and the farm, the better equipped you are to know of prior feeding and vaccinations given, and herd health status of the original farm.
  • Select from as few sources as possible to reduce disease risk being brought on to farm.
  • Keep transport distances as short as possible to reduce calf stress.


  • The calf should be alert and bright.
  • Ensure that the eyes are clear and not sunken in the head.
  • Nose should be clean with no discharge.
  • Ears should be alert and not be drooping.
  • Ears should be well healed at the tag with no puss.
  • Breathing should be easy, relaxed and not laboured.


  • The calf should be bright, playful and curious of your presence.
  • Do not buy calves that appear empty or dull.
  • Coat needs to be of good condition with no hair loss, dullness or injuries.
  • There should be no evidence of dehydration.
  • The navel should be clean, dry and well healed, avoid if it is swollen or seeping.
  • Ensure normal temperature of 38-39 degrees Celsius.


  • Animal should be sound on all four feet with no swollen joints or stiffness.
  • They shouldn't be slow to stand.
  • Ensure that calf has a relaxed posture and isn't hunched over.


  • Calves should be keen to drink milk and eat solid food.
  • Older calves should be checked for rumen fill. They shouldn't be hollow or bloated on the left flank.


  • Clean and dry tail with no evidence of scouring.
  • Not too thin with good body condition.

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