At this stage, the Thrive programme farmers have about three weeks left before calves begin to arrive on-farm for 2021. Preparation is well underway, both in terms of sourcing calves and having everything ready for when they arrive.

Selection criteria

Every calf in the Thrive programme is sired by an AI bull. Each year, prior to the breeding season, a list of suitable AI sires is decided upon using the ICBF Dairy Beef Index (DBI). To be included on the sire list, there are certain criteria that these bulls must meet. First of all, we are looking for a Value of Beef figure of greater than €50. From a beef farmer’s point of view, the higher the beef value of the sire, the greater the potential of the offspring’s beef characteristics.

The average of the team of bulls selected this year is +16kg carcase, ranging from 0.2kg to 43.4kg

However, a number of sires on the list are below the €50 Value of Beef mark at this stage. These bulls have gone through two evaluations since being selecting last spring, and some, with lower numbers of progeny on the ground, have moved in terms of their DBI rating.

The second parameter we look for is a positive carcase weight figure.

The higher this figure is, the better. The average of the team of bulls selected this year is +16kg carcase, ranging from 0.2kg to 43.4kg.

Table 1 lists the AI sires selected for the 2021 batch of calves. As many farmers will have a certain breed in mind when purchasing, the table is grouped according to breed and ranked within breed on the overall DBI from highest to lowest.

It is important to note that farmers need to look within the index to see where each sire is getting its overall rating from. The weighting for beef traits within the index make up 51%, while calving traits make up the remaining 49% of the index. A bull may have a very high overall DBI, but the majority of this could be coming from the calving traits side, meaning the beef value of the calf has little to offer the beef farmer.

Not surprisingly, the list is dominated by Angus (nine) and Hereford (six) sires, as these make up the majority of beef semen used on the dairy herd. Among the Thrive programme farms, Angus heifers are the most commonly purchased animals.

It must be noted that the breed bonus, as well as processor demand for these animals in recent years, are also contributing factors when deciding on these cattle

Farmers see this class of stock as suitable for finishing off grass at the end of the second grazing season, with minimal concentrate input. It must be noted that the breed bonus, as well as processor demand for these animals in recent years, are also contributing factors when deciding on these cattle.

Belgian Blue (seven), Charolais (three), Limousin (three) and Aubrac (one) make up the remainder of the bull list.

A balanced approach

When selecting bulls for use, we must have a balanced approach. There is little point in putting sires on the list if dairy farmers are not going to use them. The two key traits for dairy farmers selecting beef sires are calving ease and gestation length. For this reason, the list has a good range of sires with varying levels of calving ease and gestation length. Essentially, there is a bull to suit every cow in the herd.

Dam contribution

We need to remember that the sire is only half of the picture. The programme is working with known dairy herds, meaning we know the genetic background of the dam. The typical cow type is a high-EBI Holstein Friesian, with some of the herds having a strong British Friesian background.

The project calves come from farms that are doing a good job in terms of calf rearing over the first two to three weeks of life, pay close attention to colostrum management, calf housing and hygiene around feed and feeding. Last year, from almost 400 calves in the project, just two calf deaths were recorded across all of the farms.

It is important to have all this preparatory work done ahead of entering any dairy-beef system. When calves arrive on-farm, the programme farmers already know the end-point and have set themselves targets to hit along the way, so that they constantly know whether or not they are on course. The calf fits the system the farms want to operate.

Five tips for preparing for calf arrival

  • Decide on the system of production that best suits your farm and buy calves that fit that system. Too often, farmers will try to fit a system around a certain stock type that may not play to the farm or farmers strengths.
  • Do a budget: Work out what it will cost to take a calf through to beef in 18 to 24 months’ time. While dairy-beef is relatively low cost to get into, it is a big investment when you consider all costs incurred in taking these animals through to beef. Be realistic with your costings and animal performance expectations.
  • Wash calf shed now: If calves are expected to arrive in the coming weeks, do not leave it until the days before arrival to wash and disinfect the calf-rearing shed. It should be powerwashed well in advance to allow sufficient time for the shed to dry. Disease-causing bugs thrive in damp environments. Therefore, it is important to minimise the amount of moisture in the shed at all times during the rearing phase.
  • Put strict bio-security measures in place in the calf rearing shed. Get into the habit of washing, and disinfecting wellies before entering the calf shed. Have a disinfection point at the door. Clean overalls are also a must. If there are other livestock animals on-farm, there is a risk of bringing disease from them into the calf shed. Always start by feeding calves in the morning before going to other stock groups to reduce the risk.
  • Check all feeding equipment and make sure it is clean and in working order. Calf feeders may need a new set of teats. Over the course of the year, teats can become cracked and perished. This can cause them to leak, as well as making them more difficult to keep clean. All feeding equipment should be thoroughly washed prior to being used for the first time this spring.