Genetics is a key pillar of the overall Thrive programme.
Every calf in the programme is sired by high beef merit AI bulls identified using the dairy beef index (DBI).
The DBI is a tool to be used by dairy farmers to identify beef sires that will continue to deliver on key traits such as calving ease and gestation length but at the same time offer better beef genetics in terms of conformation and carcase weight for the beef farmer.
Using the DBI
Looking at the overall DBI figure will tell you very little about what the bull will deliver as the overall figure is a culmination of both the calving traits and the beef traits together. Farmers need to look within the index.
Calving ease and gestation length are always going to be the first figures dairy farmers look at when selecting beef sires.
However, when working within a certain calving ease range that suits the cow or heifer being selected for, it is really important that farmers look to maximise the beef value and the carcase weight figure of sires.
Genetics of the cow
One of the greatest problems identified within the Thrive programme is the issue of early-maturing heifers going over-fat and out of specification at light carcase weights.
This is where smaller-framed dairy cows have been mated to a beef sire with low carcase weight figures, resulting in an animal that will fail to meet minimum carcase weight specifications or be penalised for being over-fat at light carcase weights.
As Teagasc has reported in recent years, less than 40% of dairy-beef farmers are still rearing calves over a five-year period.
Lack of profitability and poor calf quality have been cited as the two main reasons for this.
In the next couple of years we will see a move to genomic tagging of all calves at birth which, combined with the new commercial beef value (CBV) will provide greater information to the calf buyer in the coming years.
If Ireland is to have a sustainable diary industry in the future, it needs a sustainable beef industry. For that to happen the quality of the beef calf coming from the dairy herd must improve.
Getting calves off to the best possible start is critical in order for dairy-beef systems to be successful.
On the demonstration farm, calves start arriving in the first days of March each year.
The programme, through the involvement of the stakeholders – Dovea Genetics, Munster Bovine and Progressive Genetics – sources calves from known herds so we can be confident that calf management on the farms of origin is excellent.
Mortality across the entire programme has been running at under 3% for the last three years, which speaks for itself.
There is a strict protocol when it comes to calf arrival in terms of nutrition, their environment and health.
All of these will be discussed in detail on the day while farmer will get to see the calf-rearing shed and housing facilities on the farm.
When sourcing animals from multiple herds, there is always going to be increased risk of introducing disease.
Vaccination plays a key role in preventing animal health issues on the farm. All animals are vaccinated for pneumonia shortly after arrival and in preparation for housing for the first winter. A clostridial vaccination programme is also employed on the farm.
After this, the other main health concerns are around dosing for stomach and lung worms.
Regular faecal egg counts are carried out for stomach worms and calves are treated for hoose once coughing is noticed, typically in late June. This year, there has been a problem with pink eye, initially in the calves but more recently in the 2021-born heifers. Treatment has been successful in most instances but the problem has been difficult to eliminate. All aspects of animal health will be discussed on the day.
For most farmers who have started dairy beef production systems in recent years, the area in which they need the most upskilling is grassland management.
In suckler systems, the cow can mask any nutritional deficits due to poorer grass quality.
However, with dairy beef there is nowhere to hide. If grass management is poor, performance in stock will be similar.
The farm is experiencing severe soil moisture deficits and grass growth is under pressure
The demo farm has excellent grazing infrastructure in place that allows for easier management and better utilisation of grazed grass. There are 40 permanent paddocks on the farm with each of these being able to be split in two when required. The farm measures grass weekly which also aids management decisions.
Currently, the farm is experiencing severe soil moisture deficits and grass growth is under pressure. The 71-year-and-a-half-old bullocks have been grazing some of the second-cut silage ground for the last three weeks in order to slow down the grazing rotation and allow the grazing platform more time to recover.
In the farmyard there will be a live demonstration of drafting stock for slaughter looking at key areas of the animal that you need to assess when identifying suitable stock.
One of the issues with this type of stock is that they can go over-fat in a very short period of time and regular drafting is necessary to keep stock within carcase specification limits.
The demo will also discuss finishing diets and strategies for the stock on show. In recent years, the farm has achieved over 80% of heifers drafted off grass while for bullocks the figure is lower at around 50%.
Within this, a higher proportion of early-maturing breeds tend to be drafted off grass, while later-maturing breeds, especially Belgian Blues, tend to need an indoor finishing period on a higher-energy cereal-based diet in order to have a sufficient level of carcase fat at the point of slaughter.