Farm Ireland

Saturday 16 December 2017

Processors are now offering finishers deals on black and white bulls

Sean Leahy, Cadamstown, Co Laois with his 1960s Ford Major at the Camross, Co Laois Vintage Run on Sunday. Photo: Alf Harvey/

Gerry Giggins

There is an abundant supply of dairy cross calves available to source at this time of year, even with the increase in the live shipping market. So far in 2017, there have been over 30,000 calves exported from Ireland, nearly double the amount at the same stage in 2016.

Calf prices have eased since the early part of the spring calving season, while store prices have hardened with the approach of the grazing season throughout the country.

Given this monetary trend, a number of traditional store purchasers have consulted with me on the option of purchasing to rear or acquiring reared dairy calves to integrate into their beef production system.

Where male calves have a traditional breed influence i.e. Hereford or Angus, the obvious route is to target a 24-month-old finish as steers, after two full grazing seasons. Black and white male calves can follow one of two production systems.

The most common here in Ireland is to castrate these animals, resulting in a 24-30-month-old finish. While the target of two full grazing seasons is achieved, poor growth rates, low feed efficiency and disappointing carcass grading can be common. Alternatively, the bull beef route can be taken with these black and white calves.

Meat yields

If you meet with any 'factory man' to discuss the option of supplying them with black and white bulls, the response would be most likely negative. This is understandable based on the recent history with the type of animals that were supplied under this category.

Bulls close to two years of age, poorly fleshed, with insufficient fat covers and low meat yields were commonly supplied. As a result, these were always the animals to be heavily discounted when supplies of finished cattle were plentiful for the factories.

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Some farmers I have recently spoken to seem to have gotten outline agreements to supply black and white bulls provided they meet with a specific criteria. These bulls must be within 13-15 months of age at slaughter, a minimum 250kg carcass, a minimum 2+ fat score, and grade higher than O-.

This production system is widely practiced in Northern Ireland and Britain through various integrated processor/supermarket/producer operated schemes. The basis of this production system is that these bulls are intensively fed throughout their lifetime, which ensures that they meet their required carcass specifications.

By feeding intensively, the liveweight gain and feed efficiency are both maximised, which is obviously necessary given the increased cost of doing so.

This calf to beef system has three distinct stages:

  • calf rearing stage
  • the growing/ frame development stage
  • the finishing/ carcass influencing stage

From a feed efficiency perspective (kilograms of dry matter eaten by the animal per kilograms of liveweight gained) the growing phase is when the black and white bull is at his most efficient.

In fact, at this stage (13-38 weeks of age) the black and white bull can outperform most other beef breeds.

In appropriate housing with a well-balanced ration for energy, protein and fibre, feed efficiencies of 5:1 can be achieved. To achieve this level of efficiency from grass, the animals would need to eat in excess of 30kg fresh grass.

Even with a well-managed zero grazing system, this may not be possible. In the final finishing phase, from week 39 through to finish, the feed efficiency will drop to 7:1.

Daily liveweight gains of 1.2kg/1.3kg are obtainable, provided energy levels are increased and protein levels decreased from the levels fed during the growing phase. The target at this stage is to restrict the natural frame growth and to maximise fleshing of the animal. Poorly fleshed animals are of no benefit to the processor.

Gerry Giggins is an independent animal nutritionist based in Co Louth

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