The Thrive dairy calf-to-beef demonstration farm in Cashel, Co Tipperary, has now completed four years of its production system, which sees around 140 dairy beef stock slaughtered each year at the end of the second grazing season. The majority of these animals are Angus and Hereford sired, while a small proportion of Belgian Blue, Aubrac, Simmental, Limousin and Charolais cattle are carried each year for comparison purposes.
However, the number of these cattle depends on the calf market, with decisions on whether or not to buy based solely on potential profitability. This reflects the population of dairy beef stock that is on the market, with over 75% being sired by early-maturing breed types.
All stock within the Thrive programme are sired by high beef merit AI bulls selected using the Dairy Beef Index (DBI). This year, the first draft of the 2021-born stock was on 19 September, with the final draft slaughtered on 15 November.
The 2022 finishing period was different from other years, in that the majority of it was spent indoors. Low grass growth rates in August saw the farm forced to house the heifers early in the month to reduce grass demand.
The heifers were housed ahead of the steers, as it was felt that if the heifers were left at pasture, they would just be running out of grass by the time the first draft of stock was coming ready for slaughter. Housing at this point would have delayed this drafting date by 10 days to two weeks.
The bullocks were then housed for finishing in early September. The finishing diet consisted of first-cut silage (71% DMD, 13.5% crude protein) plus 4kg/head of a 12% finishing nut for the heifers, while the bullocks received an additional kilo of concentrate.
Over the last three years, the most profitable system has twice been early-maturing (Angus and Hereford) bullocks, while the same breed type heifers were most profitable one other year. This year, the early-maturing bullocks retain the title of most profitable sysstem at an average net margin of €243/head. However, the late-maturing (Belgian Blue and Simmental) bullocks are the second most profitable system this year (€204/head), ahead of both the heifer systems.
The reason for this is down to the earlier housing date of the heifers on the farm compared to the bullocks and also due to more bullocks receiving a 10c/kg bonus for having a carcase weight of over 300kg when killed in Foyle Meats.
Angus vs Hereford
Tables 2 and 3 compare breed differences for heifers and bullocks respectively. This year, the gap between Angus and Hereford cattle has increased on the year, with Angus stock now almost €40/head more profitable than Hereford cattlein this particular farm system.
The majority of this is down to a superior breed bonus payment at the point of slaughter, but other factors include a slightly lower calf purchase price for Angus and a slightly better average conformation score, which helps increase the beef price paid. There was half a conformation score difference between Angus (O+) and Hereford (O=/O+) heifers, while there was a full score difference between the bullocks (O+ versus O=).
Simmental cattle were a new addition to the trial as calves last year and they have performed quite well, especially the bullocks, which were the second most profitable breed this year. This is down to a carcase weight that was comparable to the Belgian Blue, however the calf price was €75/head lower for the Simmental on day one.
Belgian Blue stock also performed quite well, although the bullocks graded slightly lower than expected and perhaps could have done with a bit more time to reach their full potential.
The biggest issue with this type of animal is that the price being paid as a calf is passing back more than the value of the increased genetic potential of the animal to the primary producer.
In recent years, there has been a constant battle between getting heifers up to a significant carcase weight at grass while trying not to go overfat in terms of carcase specification (4+ and above). This year however, the housing of stock for a short finishing period seems to have completely eradicated this issue, with no animal grading above a 4= for carcase fat.
The short indoor finishing period on silage and meal seems to have altered either the level of fat being laid down by the animal, or more likely, the colour of the carcase fat. Animals slaughtered off grass tend to have a more yellow carcase fat than those finished indoors on silage and concentrate.
Housing the stock did incur more cost in the form of silage, but the meal level remained the same as if they were being fed at grass. Therefore, in an ideal situation, we would have drafted stock in off-pasture at regular intervals about three to four weeks pre-slaughter. This short indoor finishing period should be long enough for the fat colour of the animal to change and thus reduce the likelihood of going out of specification.
These changes meant 100% of stock met carcase fat score specifications (2= to 4=). However, nine animals graded O- and one graded P+. These animals did not, therefore, receive the full 20c/kg in-spec bonus. This equates to 6.8% of stock failing to maximise this payment, down from 11% last year.
It could be argued that these poorer-grading animals could have been fed for longer to bring them up a grade, however looking at the data, they averaged a carcase weight of 289kg, which is similar to the overall average carcase weight achieved. They were just poorer animals and the cost of feeding them on, would have been a cost-neutral exercise at best.
2021 vs 2022
Table 4 is a snapshot of last year and this year side-by-side. Overall, the average carcase weight being achieved has not altered at around 290kg. However, we see the heifer carcase weight increase by 6kg (2.2%) and the bullocks fall by the same margin.
There was an almost 14% lift in beef price paid, with an average price of €4.94/kg achieved this year. It resulted in a similar increase in the overall value of the carcase, which averaged €1,428.
The cost of production also rose significantly, up by 12.2% on the year. The costs associated with these cattle were relatively low in year one (average concentrate price €320/t) compared to year two, where grazing costs increased due to higher fertiliser costs, concentrates averaged €450/t and silage in the finishing period was more expensive.
Were these cattle fed through the winter and slaughtered out of the shed next spring, the current level of increase in beef price year-on-year would not be sufficient to cover the increased feed costs incurred.
In summary, 2022 has been a positive year in terms of financial performance on the farm. Costs increased, especially concentrate and silage costs, but given the system in place, slaughtering at between 19- and 21-months of age, this cost increase was minimised.
We should be reminded that the animals on this farm are some of the best dairy-beef genetics available in the country. The average birthdate for the 2021-born stock was 25 February, so we are using an early spring-born calf, the farm is in south Tipperary and enjoys a long grazing season. Technical efficiency on the farm is also excellent.
Given all this, the margin being achieved is quite small. The farm runs 3.25 of these animals per hectare, resulting in a margin of between €550/ha and €790/ha before Single Farm Payment, depending on breed-type.