Beef from the dairy herd

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The continuing expansion of the Irish dairy herd has implications far beyond the dairy sector, writes Matt O’Keeffe

Compact spring calving of all, bar nine per cent, of the dairy herd means that the numbers of calves born on dairy farms in a very short period of time is increasing substantially year on year. A proportion of these calves are destined for use as replacement stock on dairy farms. The remainder will be available for the beef sector, provided the quality of calves is adequate to turn them into beef cattle. The dairy-bred bull calves will be less useful for beefing profitably than crossbred stock from traditional beef breeds. These crossbreds are the focus of an ongoing trial being run by Gene Ireland in conjunction with ABP, Teagasc, the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) and artificial insemination (AI) companies.

Beef bull selection
Padraig French, head of livestock research at Teagasc Moorepark, sets out the situation regarding beef supplies from the Irish dairy herd: “The ongoing expansion of the dairy herd is significantly increasing the supply of beef-cross dairy calves and these are becoming the dominant supply of prime beef from Irish, grass-based, beef production. The decisions made by dairy farmers when selecting beef bulls to use on their dairy herd have a profound effect on the overall efficiency of the calf-to-beef enterprise. We need to ensure that dairy farmers have sires available to them that can meet their requirements for short gestation and easy calving but also have good terminal traits for the beef farmers who rear those calves.”

Supply to double by 2021
Padraig estimates that by 2021 the numbers of cross-bred beef calves being born on dairy farms will have almost doubled from 493,000 to 930,000 calves with male dairy-type calves remaining static or decreasing. The challenge will be to maximise the profit opportunity from these beef-cross dairy calves. The choice of sires and dams of the dairy and suckler farmer is a polar opposite so the progeny from the dairy herd bear little relation to the type of stock being bred on suckler farms. The beef breeder uses a beef-breed dam crossed with a beef-terminal sire to produce high-value beef calves, especially bull calves. By contrast, the dairy farmer, after he/she satisfies replacement requirements, desire an easy-calving, short-gestation beef-type calf, while still having a reasonable value. The traditional beef farmer has always aimed for high-carcass growth from feed-efficient animals that meet market specifications. How to fit these contrasting requirements together, in the context of beef-cross calves coming off the dairy herd, is the task under trial.

Index-based approach required
As Dr Andrew Cromie, technical director, ICBF, points out, the current focus of dairy farmers is to maximise ease of calving. There is, however, a strong negative association between calving ease and carcass conformation. “Looking at figures gleaned from Angus-sired dairy progeny slaughtered over the past two years, it is clear that there is a steady decline in carcass conformation as dairy farmers prioritise ease of calving and/or short-term gestations. This will continue unless there is an index-based approach to breeding beef-type sires for use on the dairy herd.”

The genetic key
Initial results from the Gene Ireland Dairy Beef Programme indicate that improved beef genetics for use in the dairy herd can improve carcass weight and feed intake for the beef farmer without compromising calving difficulty or gestation length for the dairy farmer. The first animals in the trial have been slaughtered and initial analysis suggests a difference of between €150 and €200 per slaughtered animal depending on the AI sire. The research is being conducted at a 280-acre ABP research and demonstration farm in Co Wexford, which is set up to resemble a typical beef farm and is worked by an experienced beef-farming family that is living on and managing the farm. The aim of the study is to improve the efficiency and profitability of beef animals sourced from the dairy herd by developing a dairy-beef selection index that will maximise dairy and beef on-farm performance. There is a concerted effort to identify the most suitable beef-bull genetics for crossing on dairy herds and to genetically improve the main breeds supplying beef bulls to dairy herds.

Progress report
Dr Cromie was positive about developments to date: “The programme is now delivering real benefits for the beef and dairy industries, by helping ICBF accurately identify the beef sires that have proven traits for use on the dairy herd in the future. All of the data collected on the participating AI sires, including their progeny, is publically available on the ICBF website, thereby ensuring that farmers and the wider industry can have absolute confidence regarding the accuracy and independence of the genetic evaluations being generated as part of the study.”

Ongoing research
The chief operations officer at ABP, Finbarr McDonnell, said the findings are a result of a culmination of three years’ collaborative work between ABP, ICBF and Teagasc. “These are the first set of results from this multi-year initiative and they already represent significant success. Having a research and demonstration farm has allowed us to consistently monitor and record valuable data on all aspects of animal development, right through from calf to slaughter. The farm is a typical Irish beef farm, which ensures today’s findings are relevant in a broader context. These findings are now available to farmers through ICBF and Teagasc so that they can make an informed decision when it comes to choosing sires for the dairy herd.”

Large-scale trial
Reflecting the beef-breed choices being made on dairy farms, most calves bought in for this ongoing trial are Hereford and Angus crossbreds. The background plan involves the purchase of a minimum of 15 progenies per sire directly from dairy farms, with these animals identified randomly from the ICBF database to ensure that ICBF is receiving an unbiased picture of the genetic merit of all sires evaluated as part of the programme. Progeny from some proven dairy-beef sires are also purchased, which then helps to confirm and validate the accuracy of the underlying genetic evaluations as a means of correctly identify beef AI bulls for use on the dairy herd. Over 1,500 calves have been purchased as part of the programme, with the first cohort now slaughtered and providing data on which to assess the effectiveness of the programme, as well as helping to identify sires with proven dairy beef attributes for the future.
All this work is being overseen by Stephen Connolly, of ABP Food Group, who is a PhD student with Teagasc and Cork IT, in conjunction with ICBF and Teagasc, under the direction of Professor Donagh Berry.