Research shows challenges faced by farmers finishing dairy-bred cattle

A Farmer puts out silage for the Hereford and Aberdeen Angus cattle in a shed on his farm. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne
Ciaran Moran

Ciaran Moran

Research in Teagasc Grange has demonstrated the challenges faced by farmers finishing dairy-bred cattle.

Due to the abolition of milk quotas, the subsequent expansion of the Irish dairy herd has meant that proportionately more beef is derived from dairy-bred compared to suckler-bred animals.

A detailed trawl of Department of Agriculture figures over 20 years by the Farming Independent shows the industry is now producing more poor quality steers than two decades ago.

The number of P grade steers have doubled in that time, with the slide towards poorer quality accelerating in recent years.

In just four years from 2015 to 2018 the breakdown of P grades rose from 9.8pc to 15pc - a 33pc increase.

Wind the clock back 20 years to 1999 and the steer kill was 952,330hd. P grades accounted for 7.6pc, O grade 47.5pc, with R grades reaching 38.9pc, while U comprised 6pc of the overall.

The steer kill for 2018 was 649,830 with R or better grades settling at 39.1pc. That's 5.8pc worse than 20 years ago.

Last year, O grade bullocks accounted for 46.2pc, with P grades at 14.8pc.

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Mark McGee and David Kenny of AGRIC, Teagasc Grange analysed the feed efficiency of suckler-bred Charolais compared to dairy-bred Holstein-Friesian steers.

The Grange study compared the intake, growth and feed efficiency of suckler-bred Charolais (CH, three-quarter bred or greater) with dairy origin Holstein-Friesian (HF) steers individually offered zero-grazed grass, and subsequently a high-concentrate finishing diet.


The HF steers were 24 days older than the CHs, which reflects the mean calving dates of the national dairy and suckler cow herds.


For the zero-grazed grass phase, the HFs were 80kg lighter and had a 70g/day lower growth rate compared to CHs.

Feed efficiency

Despite this, HFs consumed 4pc more grass dry matter (DM) daily, resulting in a 10pc poorer feed conversion ratio (FCR – kg DM intake/kg liveweight gain) than the CHs.

Likewise, in the finishing phase, the older, lighter, slowergrowing HF steers consumed 10pc more feed DM resulting in a 20pc inferior FCR than the CHs.

Kill out

At slaughter, carcass fat score was similar (9.9, scale 1-15) for both breed types, but kill-out proportion (6 percentage units lower), carcass weight (84kg lighter) and carcass conformation score (6 units poorer, scale 1-15) were considerably inferior for HFs compared to CHs.

Due to the lower kill-out proportion and lower estimated meat proportion in the carcass of HFs compared to CHs, during the finishing phase HFs consumed approximately 33pc and 50pc more feed DM/kg carcass and meat gain, respectively, than CHs.


The researchers noted that feed-efficient cattle are central to the economic and environmental sustainability of beef farming enterprises.

They noted that this breed difference in feed efficiency is a substantial cost to beef farmers and added that it has implications for farm stocking rate and environmental footprint.

Factory contracts

ICSA beef chair Edmund Graham has said that any farmer considering buying dairy calves should demand a factory contract, to include an agreed price, in advance of purchasing.

Graham said, “Farmers even remotely thinking about taking on these calves need a guarantee that there will be an outlet for them in two years’ time that will cover the cost of production, plus a margin.”

He said the economics of dairy bull beef simply don’t stack up.

"Even if you get the calves for free, they are still too expensive at today’s prices and that’s the reality. We have no clarity on the outlook for dairy bull beef so why take the risk and expend two years for nothing?

"This enterprise is a complete waste of time; it’s bad enough losing money but to have the stress of not knowing when or if you can get your bulls killed is completely unacceptable.

"Even with steer or heifer systems it is it is absolutely necessary to know what price you can expect in two years’ time. Farmers cannot be expected to undertake long term investment without long term contracts. This year has to be the last year of winter finishers getting burned.”

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