The bottom line driver for the switch to bulls is their efficiency. Farmers and their advisers are doing their sums. If it takes almost the full 1kg/hd/day liveweight gain of a steer to cover the feed cost then, the young bulls gaining 1.5kg/hd/day could return several times the steer net margin.
Initially, the young bull game in Ireland was an indoor job. The bulls thrived, especially when fed on ad lib meals. But the costly meals ate into producers' profits. The next stage was to keep bulls on grass for longer, therefore getting cheaper gain.
This led to the increasing Irish field spectacle of herds of yearling-plus bulls grazing in grass paddocks. Researchers and farmers are trying to tease out the best practices for managing such bulls at grass. When these bulls come back into the sheds onto ad lib meals after a summer on grass, farmers are reporting liveweight gains of up to 2kg a day. That potential output of €5 per head per day puts a young bull temporarily into the same area as the 20 litre/day dairy cow.
Now let's take a look at the current market for bull beef.
It's fair to say that neither Bord Bia or the beef exporters are jumping for joy at an industry switch into bull beef. Ireland's unique selling point for our beef is based on steers and heifers, not bulls.
Current factory bull prices are about on par with steers. However, on a recent visit to the Dawn Meats factory at Rathdowney, group development manager Paul Nolan told Agricultural Science Association ASA members that this was a false trade.
He said: "When cattle supplies increase this price parity will not last. Bull carcases have more of their meat in the lower value forequarter. We carried out a pricing exercise comparing dairy cross bull carcases with steer carcase of the same fat and conformation grade. This indicated an advantage of over 20c/kg carcase weight in favour of the steers."
The higher value of the steer carcase arose from more of the meat coming from the high value cuts. For example, the steer striploins made the second tier price outlets versus the third tier outlets for the bull striploins.
Keeping bulls longer at grass results in heavier carcases and higher slaughter age. This can suit the farmer, especially if there isn't a price penalty.
However, the British multiples that continue to be Ireland's bread and butter beef outlet have in-spec upper limits of about 380kg on carcase weight and a definitive 16 months on age of young bull at slaughter.
Bord Bia's Joe Burke reckons that 2013 could actually see a swing back to steers, as farmers encounter extra management issues with bulls at grass.
He said: "There are niche outlets for bulls but the markets are very specific. Italy will take bulls of up to 450kg carcase-weight if they grade at least U3, the fat is white and they're under 20 months. But even here the market is currently under pressure with product from France."
However, both the Dawn Meats and Bord Bia spokesmen recognise the income pressures on beef producers and the higher potential from farming bulls. If there is to be a swing to farming bulls, then it should be on a planned rather than an ad-hoc basis.
Paul Nolan urges farmers to talk to their meat factories and make sure they receive guidance on the type of bulls that the market will accept.
Dawn is currently in its third year of a dairy bull beef research project with Teagasc. From this, it looks as if an 18-month slaughter offers the best combination on carcase quality and cost of production. In light of this, the challenge for the Irish factories and Bord Bia is to get the British multiples to lift their 16-month upper limit to 18 months.
With their high number of ongoing trials, Teagasc Grange will soon have more science-based information on the ongoing argument on meat quality versus age and carcase-weight in bull beef.
The Irish bull revolution needs fine tuning but it looks set to continue.