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Sunday 21 April 2019

Bull calf price slump sparks dairy shift to sexed semen

Beef sire usage also set to rise as drive begins to reduce number of low-value male dairy calves

Dr Padraig French, Teagasc
Dr Padraig French, Teagasc

Louise Hogan and Declan O'Brien

A shift to sexed semen and increased use of beef sires by milk suppliers is forecast for the upcoming breeding season as the dairy sector tackles the problem of poor demand for bull calves.

AI companies report strong dairy farmer interest in sexed semen, while Teagasc confirmed that usage of Jersey genetics in its research herds will be subject to greater controls.

The moves come as dairy farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to sell bull calves this spring as a result of weak beef farmer buying, and shipping restrictions that have curtailed calf exports.

Both Ger Ryan of Dovea, and Tom Baker of Eurogene-LIC said dairy farmer enquiries on sexed semen were well up this year.

"We are seeing more interest than normal in sexed semen due to low-value male dairy calf prices in 2019. The advice would be for anyone interested to order it early because of demand," said Mr Ryan.

Mr Baker pointed out that farmers were just starting to assess their options for the breeding season but that sexed semen was being increasingly considered.

"We have had an awful lot of calls for sexed semen. It is too early to say how many of the enquiries will result in sales, but it's an indication of how farmers are thinking," he said.

Kerry-based dairy consultant, Mary Kinston, agreed that sexed semen usage would undoubtedly increase this year, but she stressed that a menu of options are open to farmers and that a combination of various approaches was best.

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She pointed out that farmers could selectively breed replacements utilising sexed semen, while using beef sires on the remainder of the herd. Reducing the AI period for breeding replacements from six to four weeks was another possible route.

However, Teagasc confirmed a major shift towards sexed semen for this year's breeding season, with all Jersey genetics used being sexed semen.

The research body's dairy enterprise leader, Padraig French, said there was a particular focus this year on using sexed semen and more beef semen from the new dairy beef index.

Mr French said the approach aimed to reduce the number of male dairy calves coming on the market and replace them with beef-cross calves.

"The crossbred dairy female is still the most profitable but we want to ensure the sustainability of the industry as a whole and that non-replacement dairy calves have a viable market outlet. It is not just Jersey that is the problem," he said.

Exports

Mr French maintained that this spring's difficulties were due to a combination of factors. An oversupply of dairy bull calves on the farms was exacerbated by depressed beef prices and restricted calf exports, he said.

In addition, the "massive strides" made in ensuring compact six-week calving of the spring dairy herd had concentrated the problems into a tighter time-frame, Mr French argued.

An additional complicating factor was the sale of dairy calves at a very young age because of space and labour limitations. Beef farmers want calves at a significantly older age, he explained.

Mr French said this would have to be addressed either by supporting dairy farmers to expand calf-rearing facilities, or by improving the skill-set of beef farms to raise young calves. Outsourcing the job to specialist calf rearers, as is done in New Zealand and Britain, was a further option.

The dairy expert rejected assertions that dairy-calf-to-beef was not a viable enterprise.

"A well run dairy calf to beef unit is a lot more profitable than a suckler unit. You have a lot higher output," Mr French said.

"It can be a very profitable enterprise when run well. At the moment the market is depressed and the sentiment is poor around the dairy calf to beef and we have to work around it."

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