Dairy-beef systems have the potential to be profitable but a high level of animal output from grazed grass is required. This was according to Padraig French of Teagasc who was addressing those in attendance at the DairyBEEF 2019 open day at Johnstown Castle.
“There are a range of different calf-to-beef systems that farmers can choose but it is important that the system is matched to your farm system. The majority of calves for beef that are coming from the dairy herd are Holstein Friesian, Angus and Hereford with continental breeds making up only 15% to 20%,” Padraig said.
Whatever system is operated, a high level of animal output per hectare will underpin the profitability of the system. However, this also comes with increased exposure to market prices.
“We have seen that the 16-month Holstein Friesian bull beef system can be profitable but it is extremely risky.”
Figures presented by Teagasc on the day show that there is the potential to achieve a net margin of €331/ha with this system at a beef price paid of €3.84/kg. This is with an average carcase of 280kg and 8.6 animals finished/hectare. This will not be a viable system for many.
The figures also highlighted that if there was a 20c/kg drop in beef price, this system would have a net margin of -€152/ha. The system is severely restricted given that 63% of the total diet will be made up of concentrates.
One system that has the potential to deliver a net margin of €873/ha, and was the most profitable system highlighted by Teagasc on the day, is finishing early-maturing heifers at 19 to 20 months of age. Animals finished per hectare in this system was 3.9 with an average carcase weight of 235kg. Slaughter price was €3.95/kg with an additional breed bonus of 30c/kg.
“One issue with the early-maturing breeds is that over the past few years we have seen a decline in conformation,” Padraig explained. “Twenty per cent of these type of animals will not make the minimum specifications and you won’t get the breed bonus. Dropping from an O+ grade down to an O- grade could mean a potential loss of 40c/kg.
The other most popular system that dairy beef farmers will look towards is finishing early maturing steers at 23 months of age. The research has shown that this system has the potential to deliver a net margin of €534/ha. Again, a high stocking rate is required with the need to finish 2.5 animals per hectare to deliver this level of margin. Slaughter price is €3.90/kg with a breed bonus worth 30c/kg. Carcase weight is an average of 315kg.
“We need farmers to look at the calves that they are buying. There is a big range of bulls even within the one breed and this can have a big effect on the carcase.”
“Whatever system you choose to go with, finishing cattle off grass at a younger age will tend to be the most profitable system,” according to Padraig.
Choosing the right calf
There was a lot of talk on the day about the genetics of the calves used in a dairy calf-to-beef system. ABP’s Stephen Connolly, who is involved in ABP’s dairy calf-to-beef Blade programme, believes that beef farmers need to drive the change of dairy farmers using better bulls.
“A huge problem is beef farmers going in and buying calves, they don’t go in and ask about the genetics,” Stephen said.
“They should go in and ask about the breeding and if they don’t like it they should walk away. If dairy farmers can use a good bull for carcase traits on cows then it can make a big difference.”
The need for beef farmers to build relationships with dairy farmers was continually highlighted throughout the day – not only to provide an outlet for calves but to ensure a higher-quality calf.
Nicky Byrne, grassland researcher with Teagasc, spoke about the importance of getting as much grass as possible into the diet. “Grazed grass is the cheapest feed available to our ruminant production systems in Ireland. Each additional tonne that we can utilise on our drystock farms will increase net profit by about €105/ha. But we are only at about 58% of our efficiency in terms of grassland on drystock farms.
“We are only growing about 7.5t nationally and utilising about 5.6t. That is only capable of supporting a stocking rate of 1.1LU/ha and that is our national stocking rate across drystock farms.
“What is key for calf-to-beef systems is increasing output per hectare and how this is achieved is crucial. We need to achieve higher levels of individual animal performance. We also need to increase our carrying capacity and stocking rates. Combined, both of these are going to increase our output per hectare. This must come on the back of grazed grass. We need to be targeting 80% of our animals’ total lifetime feed requirements coming from a combination of grazed grass and grass silage with a minimal amount of farm concentrates brought into our farm systems.
“If we can achieve this, we will maximise our level of economic and financial sustainability.”
He continued: “We need to focus on the key steps. We need to focus on soil fertility and only about 10% of soil samples from drystock farms are found to be the optimum in terms of pH or P and K.”
Grazing infrastructure, in particular, is what will let many drystock farms down when it comes to improving output from the farm, according to Nicky.
“Fencing does not have to be fancy – a simple gravel roadway servicing the majority of the paddocks with grass spur roadways. This kind of a system has very low levels of traffic on the roadways. The only cost associated with the spur roadways is the cost of the fencing but what they help us do is to utilise our grass in the shoulder of the years.
“Even in terms of labour efficiency, it is a one-man job. We can move all the groups of cattle with minimal effort because of a good roadway network.”
Increasing the number of paddocks on the farm should be a first step for anyone serious about developing an efficient calf-to-beef system.
“We need to increase the number of paddocks across our farms. If we take a 21-day rotation and divide it by our two-day residency, we know that we need 11 to 12 paddocks per grazing group on our calf to beef farms,” Nicky said.
“If we extend it beyond the two-day residency, animals are going to choose to graze the regrowth and we are going to reduce the overall productivity of these paddocks.”