There has been a dramatic increase in the usage of beef sires on the dairy herd over the last 10 years, with the number of beef calves born almost doubling from 378,000 in 2010 to 718,000 in 2020.

In this article we will examine the impact of these changes in terms of overall numbers, breed preferences, AI usage, genetic trends and actual performance for carcase traits over the period. We will also look at the what the next 10 years is expected to bring in terms of changes regarding the usage of beef sires on the dairy herd.

1 Trends in calf registrations

The number of beef calves born from dairy cows has almost doubled over the last 10 years, from 378,000 in 2010 to 712,000 in 2020 (Table 1). While a significant proportion of this can be explained by the growth in the number of dairy cow births (up from 1.03m in 2010 to 1.52m in 2020), it is notable that the percentage of beef births has also increased significantly over the period, from 37% in 2010 to 47% in 2020. Trends for the current year (births up to 31 March 2021) suggest this will continue, and that the percentage of beef calves from dairy cows could exceed 50% for the first time in 2021, once the spring calving season is complete.

A number of other interesting trends are evident in Table 1. Firstly, the percentage of beef AI births has increased significantly from 11% in 2010 to 19% for 2020, with the comparable level of dairy AI births having increased from 47% to 64% over the same period. Similarly, the trends in beef births recorded with no sire has declined over the period from 66% to 45%, with the comparable trend for dairy births having dropped from 38% to 23%. While these are positive trends, the fact that 45% of beef births recorded from the dairy herd still have no sire recorded is a major concern, especially when one considers the importance of being able to accurately evaluate sires used on the dairy herd for beef performance traits.

2 Trends in breed preferences

A closer look at the beef AI births from Table 1 indicates a number of interesting shifts in breed preferences over the same 10-year period (Figure 1). For example, the influence of the Angus and Hereford breeds is especially noteworthy, making up 67% of the AI-bred beef calves from the dairy herd in 2020 (this number is 77% if stock bull progeny are also considered).

The growth in usage of these breeds has clearly been influenced by the branded schemes offered by both of them (ie, Certified Angus and Hereford Prime), with the growth in the Hereford sire usage being especially noteworthy.

That said, both of these breeds are now seeing a slight drop in the percentage of AI births, with the shortfall now being made up by the continental beef breeds, whose usage appears to be increasing in the past number of years. This is especially relevant for the Belgian Blue breed, which has moved from a high of 36% beef AI usage in 2011 to 12% in 2019, with this downward trend having turned around in more recent years. Similar gains are now being seen by all of the beef breeds, with each of these reporting an almost doubling of usage over the past number of years, albeit from a much lower base.

Still, it is important to appreciate that collectively the continental beef breeds now make up about 35% of the beef AI births from the dairy herd, with this percentage likely to increase in the coming years, no doubt fuelled by an increased focus on the importance of beef traits coming from the dairy herd.

3 Genetic trends for beef breeds

The Dairy Beef Index was first introduced in spring 2019 as a tool to help dairy farmers identify AI sires and stock bulls that were good for both cost of calving/gestation and also beef performance traits.

Its introduction was a result of concerns raised by beef farmers and the broader industry that the quality of beef calves coming from the dairy herd was declining due to the singular focus by dairy farmers on cost of calving/gestation with no consideration given to beef traits.

So how effective has the index been in making changes in sire choices by dairy farmers? Data from Figure 1 would suggest the new index is starting to have some influence, with a slight shift towards the continental beef breeds.

But what is happening across all of these breeds in terms of their underlying genetic trends? Within the individual breed preferences, is there shift towards an increased focus on beef traits?

Looking at data from Figure 2 would suggest that the index certainly is having an effect, highlighted by the significant increase in genetic trend for carcase weight when all beef AI-bred calves are considered together (the blue line in Figure 2).

This is clearly being influenced by the slight shift in breed preference towards the continental beef breeds. However, if we look at the trends within all of the main beef breeds (and especially the Angus and Hereford breeds), then we see that the same upward trend is also starting to happen. This bodes well for the future and give us confidence that the quality of beef calves coming from the dairy herd will continue improve into the future.

4 Looking forward: G€N€ IR€LAND & Genomics

There is now little doubt that the current trend of increasing beef from the dairy herd (growing at 1-1.5%/year) will continue into the future. It is for this reason that ICBF, Teagasc, AI companies and the broader industry are investing so heavily in ways to improve the quality of beef coming from the dairy herd.

Key to this will be the G€N€ IR€LAND Dairy Beef breeding programme, which is the main route through which high-DBI young bulls are first identified and then progeny tested for calving ease, gestation length and then beef performance traits. From there graduates get widely used by dairy farmers, with the goal of ensuring a steady stream of new and better bulls each year. This is how the dairy programme currently operates. There is no reason why the dairy-beef programme should not follow the same principle in the future.

If we can achieve this, then beef farmers can be confident that they will get a new and better crop of beef calves from the dairy herd each year.

However, to ensure this outcome, we need to create more assurance between beef farmers and dairy farmers regarding the quality of calves being generated. This is why genomics is such an integral part of ICBF’s breeding programme plans. Not only will the technology help identify superior young bulls for the progeny test programme, but it will also provide a means to give certainty around the genetic merit of an animal at the point of sale, with this data then made available to potential buyers, eg on mart display boards.

This will in turn create the necessary “pull factors” along the value chain to help influence the dairy farmers decision at the outset. This will be key to ultimately realising the potential that dairy beef has to offer our farmers and our wider dairy and beef industries.