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jury is still out on rearing bull calves from dairy herd

Is there money in rearing bull calves from the dairy herd? Judging by the number of youthful heads that turned out to last week's Teagasc/Dawn Meats open day on dairy beef at Johnstown Castle, this question is exercising a lot of minds.

The Johnstown project involves buying more than 300 calves a year which are channelled into 11 separate sub-trials. Did the crowds come away with a definitive answer?

No, but there were pointers. The biggest being "expensive concentrates suck the profit out of young dairy bull beef systems".

To be fair, the trials are still work in progress. Many of the economics shown in Table 1 will be speculative until more groups of bulls have been progressed through to slaughter. But the earlier optimism for 12 and 16-month dairy bull beef has taken a hit, based almost totally on the high cost of meals and the ability of these animals to gobble up tonnes of the stuff. The all-meal 11 to 12-month bulls consume almost 2t per head.

The first bulls through the eight, 12 and 16-month systems have been slaughtered. The results in the table show negative net margins for the 12 and 16-month bulls. Interestingly the rose-veal animals slaughtered at eight months did give positive net margins of €139/hd for Holstein/Friesian and €200/hd for the Jersey cross, but this was based on a premium price of €5.50 a kg carcassweight. The Teagasc speakers seemed to dismiss this system as niche, with insufficient market demand.

Compared to the previous open day at this centre, the emphasis had moved towards 19 and 22-month bulls in the effort to gain a bottom-line profit. Even the tried and tested two-year steer beef has come back into the equation as a profitable option for dairy-bred bulls. Indeed, the recent beef-price lift has lifted all beef systems. Long may it last.

On paper, the 19 and 22-month options also look profitable in the absence of a price discount (see table). The dilemma is that the market has put an upper limit of 16 months on dairy bull beef, but the Irish farmer wants to hold them longer to get more weight gain from grass.

The grass versus meals issue is starkly illustrated by the fact that €205 is spent on meals for the eight-month bulls whilst a mere €89/hd covers all grass eaten by the 24-month-old steers. However, the trials indicated that including 1-2kg meals head/day to the bull calves at grass in the first season may still be justified.

While the 16-month bulls at Johnstown Castle failed to meet the target carcass weight of 275kg, the system should not be dismissed yet. Bulls on other farms in the Dawn Meats project have easily surpassed the 275kg benchmark. Calf quality is seen as key to hitting the system targets. Also, the Dawn farmer calves were purchased for less than the €140/hd budgeted in the Johnstown Castle system.

I spoke to farmers attending the open day who were using home-grown cereals and fodder beet and they too were hitting 300kg carcassweight at 16 months.

For some reason, Teagasc charged more for the calves and paid less for the carcasses in the 16-month system than in the 19 and 22-month systems. This distorts the relative margins.

Teagasc Moorepark is pushing Jersey crossbreeding in the Irish dairy herd. Based on a discount of €110 for the Jersey cross versus the Holstein Friesian calf, the Johnstown Castle results indicate that the crossbred may be a runner. However, more forensic measurement of carcass meat yield from the Jersey cross is needed before the absolute measure of their worth is ascertained. But are we ready for beef Jersey crosses? As a Kilkenny beef man remarked "I couldn't even bear to look at them in my field".


•"Calf selection is key to meeting targets in the dairy bull beef systems," Sarah Long, Group Agricultural Manager, Dawn Meats.

•"The 16-month beef system is extremely sensitive to calf price and to concentrate price," Robert Prendiville Teagasc Johnstown Castle.

•"It makes sense that bulls should be brought onto the QPS grid. With goodwill among the stakeholders this could happen within two months," Paul Nolan, Group Development Manager, Dawn Meats.

•"The earlier the calf is born the better he fits our systems. Calves born later than March are not suitable," Pearse Kelly, Teagasc Beef Specialist.

•"Earlier turnout makes grass management a lot easier. Do not take baled silage after August. From September, all grass should be grazed," Michael O'Donovan, grassland specialist Teagasc.

•"Weaning at eight weeks was too early. The money saved on milk replacer did not compensate for the extra meals we had to feed the early weaned calves during the grazing season," Emer Kennedy, Teagasc specialist on calf rearing.

•"With beef cattle, energy in the ration is more important than protein," Siobhain Kavanagh, Teagasc ruminant nutritionist.

•"We intend carrying out eating quality tests on the bulls of the different breeds and slaughter age," Frank O'Mara, head of Teagasc Research.


•What is the optimum group size for grazing dairy bulls at pasture?

We reckon that a group of 20-25 is the optimum. At that size, a pecking order is established and the group can settle. At higher numbers there can be constant jostling to claim top bull. In New Zealand, they talk about groups of 20 or 200, suggesting that in very large groups fighting for top bull is too much of an effort.

Last year, the stress of mixing calves from several sources led to pasteurella pneumonia at grass in August. This year, the calves were reared on-site and kept in the same groups when put to grass.

•How frequently are the bulls moved to a new paddock?

Because of their restlessness after the first day in a paddock, we have been forced to move the bulls to a new paddock daily. If necessary, this can be done subdividing paddocks with a fence and using a back fence as well. Groups of bulls are never stocked on adjacent paddocks.

•What height is the grass when the bulls enter a new paddock?


•Can I overwinter the bulls on kale?

Yes, if you can achieve 80kg weight gain over the winter. In one case that we monitored last winter the bulls gained no weight.

•What ration is fed?

Our standard that is fed across the groups of bulls is 80pc barley, 14pc soya, 4pc molasses and 2pc minerals and vitamins. If you are feeding ad-lib it is vital that there is a slow build up over a three-week period.

Indo Farming