Of the 1.5m or so dairy cows that calve in spring, less than half (46%) are to a beef sire.
Most of these beef sires are Aberdeen Angus and Hereford. Between 2019 and 2020, there was an 11% increase in beef-sired calves from dairy cows.
At the same time, the number of dairy female calves from dairy cows (future herd replacements) has remained static. So while dairy cow numbers are increasing, a greater proportion of cows are going in calf to a beef sire.
However, using a beef sire alone will not guarantee high genetic potential for beef in the progeny of these matings. When choosing a beef bull, whether through AI or natural service, calving ease and gestation length are the main factors considered by most dairy farmers.
Focusing on these traits has been to the detriment of carcase weight, the genetic potential of which has seen a steady reduction over the last 10 years, down from +4.30kg in 2011 to +1.97kg in 2020 for the average of all AI beef bulls used on the dairy herd. It’s even lower for stock bull-bred calves. However, there are positive indications that the trend has reversed, with an increase in genetic potential observed in the last few years.
However, focusing just on carcase weight is not right either. Dairy farmers understand this more than most. Those who pursued high milk yields in the 1990s weren’t long about finding out that yield is just one factor in the profit equation, with costs of production having a much greater impact on profit. The same can be said of beef farmers chasing high carcase weights. Age at slaughter, feed intake and costs of production are important factors.
That’s not to take away from the fact that beef farmers need an animal that has the potential to deliver sufficient profit. Continually reducing the genetic potential for carcase weight will make that objective harder.
The good news is that the increasing use of beef AI and increasing use of high-Dairy-Beef-Index sires will help to improve the beef value of dairy beef calves.
These two pieces of technology should help to achieve the twin objectives of a) not dramatically increasing calving difficulty or gestation length and b) producing a calf that can turn a decent profit for the beef farmer.
The trade-off here is that dairy farmers are being asked to accept some increase in calving difficulty risk in order to deliver these better calves.
Some will argue that the return to the dairy farmer is being able to sell calves quicker and easier while others will point out that the market doesn’t adequately reward farmers for producing better beef calves, or even beef calves at all.
Some dairy farmers (and indeed beef farmers) argue that Holstein Friesians are easier calved, have shorter gestation lengths and will come into a heavier carcase than traditional beef breeds. Research work in Teagasc Grange is struggling to dispute this theory. However, there is no dispute that a coloured calf in a mart ring will do better than a black and white calf.
Another challenge is around the whole area of sire recording. Just 55% of beef calves born into the dairy herd have their sire recorded.
This is a massive constraint on the beef breeding programme as 50% of the genes of that animal are unknown. How can progress be made if the sire of the animal isn’t being recorded in the database?
Where the sire of the calf is known, that sire should be recorded and that should be mandatory. Issues arise on larger dairy farms where there could be more than one bull running with the herd. Even where one bull has been seen serving a cow, there is no certainty about whether that bull is the sire of the resulting pregnancy. Genotyping all calves is one way around this. The question then is who pays for the genotyping?
Using more AI could be a quick fix to the sire identification issue and it will also help in improving the beef merit of dairy-beef calves as AI sires have the highest and most reliable DBI value. The challenge of increasing AI usage in dairy herds is that it requires more labour and more observation than just using stock bulls.
Typically, a dairy farmer will do six weeks of dairy AI and then six weeks using beef stock bulls to catch the remaining repeats. It’s a tall order to ask a dairy farmer to continue with AI for longer than six weeks. Having said that, an increasing number of dairy farmers are doing just that, particularly in larger herds where stock bulls are troublesome. Automated heat detection aids are facilitating increased use of AI also.
Dam breed and size is another issue. Again, there is a conflict here between what is good for the dairy farmer and what is good for the beef farmer. Large cows have larger appetites than smaller cows. They have a higher maintenance requirement than smaller cows.
Efficient cows divert more of their intake towards production (meat, milk, body condition, etc) and less towards maintenance.
We know from EBI data that the weight of the average dairy cow is not decreasing.
This is reflected in a static maintenance sub-index. However, the EBI for beef is declining in the national herd. This suggests that the higher-EBI cow carries a big engine for production such as rumen, intestines etc, whereas older-type cows were obviously carrying more weight in the forequarters and hindquarters.
There are some who want the EBI altered to incentivise beefier cows by rewarding them with a higher EBI. Such proposals will not be universally welcomed.