Over the last two years more and more farmers have been investigating the option of dairy-calf-to-beef as an alternative system of beef production on their farms or as a bolt-on enterprise to increase output.
The abolition of dairy quotas in 2015 has meant that dairy cow numbers have increased and, with that, so have numbers of beef-bred calves from dairy cows.
The number of dairy-beef animals we slaughtered has almost doubled in the last 10 years. There were 98,662 beef x dairy animals slaughtered in 2010.
This figure rose to 192,116 head in 2020.
While dairy-calf-to-beef production may present opportunities for some farms it’s important to weigh up the positives and negatives of the system before embarking on a change of enterprise for you farm.
The first issue is the raw material or calf which you are dealing with. There are two options here, either purchasing male Holstein Friesian or dairy-cross bull calves or purchasing male or female beef-sired calves from the dairy herd.
While male dairy-bred calves may seem very economical to purchase on day one, it’s important to do the sums on the system and consider what cash will be needed to bring month-old calves through to finish at 24-30 months. Thrive budgets have shown that this will exceed €1,000, so it’s important to factor this into the budget.
Over the past number of years when selecting beef sires for the dairy herd, dairy farmers have concentrated on easy-calving bulls with short-gestation lengths.
They haven’t in the past been concerned with carcase weight or carcase quality. This has led to a deterioration in the national carcase weight and carcase conformation figures and while the rate of deterioration has slowed in the last two years, a lot more work is still required.
Another area where progress has been made is in the use of crossbred genetics in the dairy herd. Jersey usage has reduced by 27% over the last two years.
Teagasc research has shown that is near impossible to make a positive margin out of finishing crossbred male calves from the dairy herd and farmers purchasing calves should take note of this.
On the beef-dairy-cross calves, more progress has been made, with the introduction of the dairy beef index in 2018 allowing dairy farmers to choose bulls which are easy-calved with a short gestation but also have a positive figure for carcase weight and carcase conformation. The carcase weight figure for the top 25 beef bulls used in the dairy herd in 2020 improved by 5kg on the figure for 2018.
More work is needed though. If we look at the most-used AI beef bull in the dairy herd in 2020, the Aberdeen Angus bull KYA, he comes in at -2.2kg for carcase weight. So farmers need to drill down into the sub-indices to make real progress.
When buying dairy-beef calves, beef farmers should be asking the DBI index of the bull used. This is the only way that things will change. If dairy farmers see an incentive to use some of these bulls, it’s a positive for the industry.
One other area where huge improvement is needed is the level of sire recording that is currently taking place in dairy herds. Of all the beef calves born from dairy cows in 2020, 19% were by an AI sire, 36% were by a stock bull and 45% had no sire recorded.
Dairy farmers know better than any sector the power of data recording and yet they continue to record no sire when registering calves. Where it’s a dairy sire on a dairy cow, the number with no sire drops to 27%.
There are some who believe that genotyping should be compulsory on dairy farms in cases where no sire is recorded. There have been only small increases in the level of beef AI over past five years in the dairy herd.
In the quest for sales, pedigree breeders of stock bulls destined for the dairy herd have also become focused on easy calving, forfeiting terminal traits.
This will take time to change. Straws used in 2021 will be breeding bulls in 2023 at the earliest, with the first cattle to be slaughtered off that bull in 2025-2026.
Massive improvement is needed in technical efficiency on beef farms. In a suckler system, farmers will get away with a certain amount of inefficiency in areas like grazing management and silage quality.
A dairy-beef system will expose these inefficiencies and because the margins are so tight, this will result in big losses.
The ability to complete budgets is also key. Calf prices at the moment in no way reflect the margins that exist in dairy-beef systems. There are lots of things farmers have no control over, but calf price is one area where a decision can be made – don’t purchase if they are too expensive.
We are all in this together and we need to avoid the “them and us” attitude when it comes to dairy and beef farms.
A thriving dairy industry needs a thriving beef industry and if beef farmers lose money on finishing dairy-beef calves, it’s hard to ask them back to buy calves again.
Calf exports will come under increasing pressure in the future so it’s up to the industry to put in place a plan to avoid having issues in the future.
Dairy-beef has potential but we need to be careful about pitting the suckler sector against the dairy-beef sector.
Both systems can work alongside each other and there is room for both. Beef farmers need to sit down and look at the figures before making any drastic changes to their beef system.