Farm Ireland

Thursday 23 November 2017

Recent shift back to dairy beef systems will see unwanted bulls reared to boost cattle kill

John Shirley

Go to any meeting on dairy AI and you will be guaranteed to hear complaints about too many dairy bull calves. These unwanted, unloved creatures are party poopers in a female world, a by-product of milk production that is a nuisance around the farm.

And the more extreme the dairy breeding becomes, the more the male calves will face beef rejection.

And yet the trend is towards more and more dairy bull calves in the system. Between 2007 and last year, dairy bull calf numbers grew from 260,000 to 320,000hd a year. With the emphasis on dairy expansion, this figure looks set to top 400,000 dairy bull calves by 2020. The only factor that can slow down this trend would be greater usage of sexed semen in AI or even semen that is processed to increase the ratio of heifer to bull calves.

The Irish beef industry is taking note of the trends in calf births, the decline of the suckler herd and the big plans for expansion in dairy cow numbers. Dawn Meats is very active in researching the opportunities for dairy beef. The company is collaborating with Teagasc in a major dairy beef research project based at Johnstown Castle in Wexford. Also, Dawn has contracted with farmers in a pioneering dairy beef project. Other beef processors, too, are working with selected farms in the production of young dairy bulls. Of these, the Rose Veal project involving Buitelaar Farms and Slaney Foods is already well established.

This growth in dairy bulls at the expense of suckler beef will do nothing for quality and yields of our carcass beef, but faced with a drop of 100,000hd in the Irish cattle kill this year, and the same again next year, Irish meat plants have a challenge on their hands. A poor carcass is better than none. Actually, in terms of eating quality, dairy beef is quite good. It's just the meat yield and feed efficiency that is wrong.

There was a time in Ireland when the Friesian was a respectable beef animal. At that time, implants were available and the Holstein influence was less. Fields were full of Friesian bullocks. Calf to beef systems, based on the black and white dairy calves, were very popular, and an R-grade carcass was quite common. So the current interest in dairy beef systems is a return to the past but with more emphasis on beef from bulls.

During the 1990s, dear calves and the suckler cow subsidy led to a switch from calf to beef into suckling, but now I detect a drift in the opposite direction.

Galway farmer Tim Keady is one of the few who continued with calf to two-year-old steer beef from dairy calves over the years despite the dear calves. He buys about 70 calves a year, aims to get 320kg carcasses and about 750kg of meal/hd in total.

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Every animal in this system is productive with no cow overhead to be carried. If ever calf prices collapse, as it did a few times in the past, this system can cash in on the situation. Key to this unit is high calf survival rates, good quality silage and good grass.

It was feared that the new price grid would scupper this system but it looks as if a flat factory price will again be achieved for the Keady cattle this spring.


A very interesting and well-organised joint Dawn Meats/Teagasc conference and open day took place at Johnstown Castle last November. On the day, Dawn boss Niall Browne announced that Dawn would contract with farms to deliver dairy beef bulls of a certain spec.

That process is up and going this spring. The Dawn Meats Dairy Beef Club has been formed with 3,000 dairy bulls already in the system, according to group development manager Paul Nolan.

The target is to produce a 270kg carcass with a minimum O=2+ grade from dairy bulls at 16 months and a combination of grazing followed by an intensive finish. Dawn sources the calves, which enter specialised rearing units at about two weeks. Provided these calves reach a minimum of 110kg liveweight at 12 weeks, they are valued at €285 when entering the next phase. Provided they reach the spec, the dairy bulls are guaranteed a minimum of €3.20/kg at slaughter.

To date, the evidence is that Dawn is working with the top-end of the dairy calves quality-wise. Jersey-cross calves are not suited in either this or the Buitelaar/Slaney programme so we still have to find an outlet for them.

Dawn is planning a series of open days on the project farms, including an open day at Johnstown Castle in June to view bulls ready for slaughter.

At the open day last November, some of the young bulls that had been grazed for the summer and autumn were like pot-bellied frogs, but those fed on meals were quite fleshy.

Sexed semen, the Holy Grail for the dairy farmer, is an obvious way to get shut of the unwanted dairy bull calf and replace it with a beef cross. Sexed semen usage is growing quite rapidly in many countries but is slow to take off in Ireland. Even in Northern Ireland sexed semen usage is way higher than in the Republic. In the North, a high proportion of the AI in maiden dairy heifers is now using sexed semen.

Price and conception rates are the issues putting people off the sexed product but there seems to be a huge market in the Republic for semen biased towards heifer calves. The 'Female Advantage' semen marketed by Progressive Genetics and Munster AI caused no reduction in conception rates while it increased the ratio of heifer to bull calves. The early market response to this product has been very positive, suggesting that bias sex semen can go a long way towards reducing the population of the pure dairy bull calves.

Currently, a herdowner looking for 30 replacements per 100 cows must have at least 60 dairy calves on the ground including 30 bull calves. With a 60/40 heifer/bull bias semen, the 30 heifers can be achieved from 50 cows and with 20 bulls tagged on. The number of bull dairy calves on this basis is reduced by one-third.

This will give more scope for crossing with a beef bull, which will add an extra €300 in value for a Belgian Blue dairy cross.

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