Farm Ireland

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Unlocking the secret to sustainable beef growth

Michael Drennan

The record of the Irish beef industry over the past 30 years is very positive. Despite a reduction in dairy cow numbers from more than 1.6m in the early eighties to 1.09m last year, beef carcass weight output has increased by about 20pc.

This arose primarily from an almost threefold increase in the suckler cow herd. A switch to late-maturing continental breed crosses brought increased carcass weights and improved carcass quality.

Clear guidelines and facts gleaned from research also played a role in the growth of Irish beef and this must continue. Below are some of the issues clarified by research and now implemented on farms.


Using a crossbred, as opposed to a purebred cow, increases calf output per cow by 13pc. Using a sire from a third breed on the crossbreed cow increases the weight of calf weaned by a further 8pc.

Studies at Grange have clearly shown that cow milk yield is the most important determinant of calf pre-weaning gain.

However, the progeny of dairy crosses have poorer carcass quality with consequently lower meat yields and are less efficient. Carcass dissection studies at Grange show that steer progeny of late-maturing animals from the suckler herd (about 7/8 continental breeds) had 6.2pc (71.2 v 65.0) more meat than Holstein Friesians of similar fat scores (3+).

Carcass conformation scores were U- and O- for the sucklers and Holstein/Friesians, respectively. The challenge is to identify beef sires of high milk- producing strains to provide replacements. Dairy herd beef quality is likely to decline further due to the introduction of more dairy types, such as Jerseys.

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Production efficiency

The production of young bulls compared to steers results in one third extra beef output during the finishing period, for the same feed input.

In addition, because of slaughter at a younger age than steers, young bulls result in far lower greenhouse gas emissions. In a Grange study, late-maturing continental breed (about 5/6) steers and bulls gained 23pc more weight during the finishing period per unit of energy consumed than Holstein-Friesians.

A higher kill-out (57.7 v 52.2pc) and a greater proportion of meat in the carcass (71.7 v 66.8pc) resulted in meat produced per unit of energy consumed being 51pc greater for the beef than dairy breeds.

The work in progress at the moment on residual feed intake at Grange will determine if further efficiency of production can be obtained from selection within beef breeds.

Calving interval

Maximising grass in the diet is key to making profit in Irish suckling. This demands a 365-day calving interval. Calving date can be brought forward where adequate supplies of leafy grass are provided and management is good. In natural service, watch out for infertile or low fertility bulls.

Breeding records are essential to check on the fertility of the bull and for predicting calving dates. With AI, frequent observation (up to five times daily) is important. Other aids to heat detection include running steers with the herd, tail-painting and a vasectomised bull with a chin-ball marking device. Studies carried out in the US have shown that the presence of a bull with the herd reduced the time from calving to first oestrous by six to 16 days. Research in Ireland has shown that calf removal from the cow and twice daily access for suckling also reduced the period from calving to first oestrous. First calvers, particularly when first calving is at two years, are slower to show oestrous than mature cows and need extra feeding. The role of heat synchronisation is limited.

Grass usage

Successful suckler systems depend on maximising the use of grazed grass. The importance of attaining good individual animal performance at pasture cannot be over-emphasised.

However, it is not just the number of days spent at grass that is important -- which varies considerably with location, soil type and between years -- but the actual amount of weight gain attained during the grazing season. Studies at Grange have shown that over-grazing to very low grass heights results in reductions in animal performance. While there is a balance between production per animal and per hectare, it must be kept in mind that because grazed grass is so cheap compared with the alternatives, a certain level of under-utilisation is acceptable in order to maximise performance, particularly for growing and finishing animals.


Having a closed herd helps reduce losses from disease. However, such herds could suffer major problems if infection was introduced.

Replacements should always be brought in at the calf stage or as breeding animals and isolated from the main herd with tests and vaccinations undertaken as prescribed by your vet.

Introduction of cows prior to calving into an existing herd should never be contemplated. Trace elements are better given orally than with an injection.

Vaccinations against BVD, Lepto and IBR will work in the short term but eradication is a better long-term policy.

Carcass quality

A major development in recent years was the agreement between beef producers and processors for payment based on meat yield for steer and heifer carcasses. This followed studies at Grange clarifying the relationship between meat yield with carcass conformation and fat scores.

The future

Long-term Irish beef farming viability will depend on substantially improved returns for producers. EU payments must be based on current production rather than historical animal numbers. Young bulls must be included in the beef quality payment grid and in the Beef Quality Assurance Scheme.

Young bulls were also included in the Grange study relating meat yield to carcass conformation and fat scores and the results were similar to those with steers and heifers. An active research programme is essential for future progress. Research priorities must be identified.

The most critically important research areas can be identified by a questionnaire to top beef farmers. The studies can then be undertaken by researchers knowledgeable in the area who are properly supported and have a commitment to the industry's future.

The principles for ensuring a successful research team are no different to that of a successful sports team as in Kilkenny hurling and Leinster rugby. A competent manager and his staff are provided with adequate support and not subjected to outside interference.

Sensational developments often based on inadequate research and not adequately examined in the context of long-term sustainability, tend to undermine confidence in research and development.

Farm organisations, beef processors, Department of Agriculture, Teagasc, ICBF, Bord Bia and universities, all have a role to play in the future of Irish beef. Maximum progress is dependant on the various sectors working together rather than criticising efforts by other sectors of the industry.

Dr Michael Drennan recently retired from his post of leading beef research scientist at Teagasc Grange. The prices in the quality payment grid are based on his research work

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