5 factors contributing to profitable dairy-beef production

Dr. Doreen Corridan – Munster Cattle Breeding Group 

Expansion in the dairy herd has resulted in an increase of 414,000 calves born in 2018 – an increase of 40% on 2010 figures.

Due to the increased fertility and survival of dairy cows, more cows are now being bred to beef sires as less replacements are required; this has resulted in 275,000 extra beef calves been born – a 72% increase.

Speaking to beef finishers who purchased calves in 2018, they are placing a huge emphasis on building a good relationship with dairy herdowners.

1) Farm-to-farm relationships

This relationship maximises the value of the calves to the purchaser, as they can be confident of 3L of clean colostrum calf intake.

This preferably would come from cows vaccinated for Rota and Corona virus in the first two hours of birth and managed correctly in the first fortnight through optimum nutrition (i.e 3L am and pm and having access to water and calf creep from one day old to develop the rumen).

Also, this relationship allows the calf to have received its first vaccination for IBR, PI3, Pasteurella and RSV before it leaves the farm, as well as a direct farm-to-farm movement.

The biggest cost for the beef farmer is calf mortality and the purchase of non-functional cattle because they have contracted scour or pneumonia in their early life and subsequently have inferior performance.

The development of these relationships will benefit both parties and ensure our social license going forward, the sustainability of dairy-beef production and profitability.

While building these relationships and choosing well-reared, healthy calves is extremely important, choosing calves from the best quality beef sires allow these animals to meet the minimum carcass specifications.

2) Beef sires

The beef value of the cross-bred beef calves can be improved by more careful selection of the beef sires used in the dairy herd and maximising the number of mature cows bred to beef and reducing the number of maiden heifers bred to beef.

Currently, dairy herdowners are focusing almost exclusively on easy-calving sires with short gestation to maximise their profitability from milk production and are not taking into consideration the value of the beef calf to the beef finisher or its final carcass merit.

Below is a breakdown, by sire breed, of the percentage of cattle born to a dairy cow or heifer that did not meet the minimum carcass weight specification or the minimum carcass conformation specification.

The profitability of the beef finisher is paramount to ensure the calves are taken to slaughter in order to fulfill our social license to farm and the sustainability of dairy production.

A sensible balanced approach of what is required for profitable dairy production and profitable calf-to-beef production will result in a favourable position for everybody.

3) Black and white-sired male calves

The beef value of the dairy male can be improved by choosing calves bred to black and white dairy sires to produce replacements exclusively and avoiding Jersey and Jersey-cross sires.

There is a difference of €46 in beef merit between the black and white sires and the jersey and cross-bred Jerseys on the all bull list from the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF).

There is a balance required between the maintenance and the beef sub index in the EBI; we need to identify that sweet spot to ensure we maximise efficiency in the dairy herd and produce a calf for the beef herd.

The next generation herd in Moorepark and the all bull list published by the ICBF clearly demonstrates that the currently available black and white sires are genetically superior to the currently available Jersey and Jersey-cross sires for profitability in milk production and this holds true when hybrid vigour is accounted for.

Improvements in the conception rate of sexed semen in the future will not ameliorate the Jersey issue, but it will reduce the number of Jersey and Jersey-cross male calves born. However, we will still have the Jersey influence in the cow bred to a beef sire.

4) Male dairy calves born

How does a dairy herdowner maximise the value of this group of calves to a beef finisher without compromising profitability in the industry?

Better genetics and fertility

The number of dairy male calves born can be reduced by reducing the replacement rate to the optimum for each herd – which is in the region of 18% to allow cows have 5.5 lactations in their lifetime.

Secondly, only produce the required number of replacements and avoid wastage – 65% of the 2015 dairy heifer calves born calved at two years.

This requires the use of high-EBI sires with a balance in fertility and milk sub index and improving fertility management to reduce empty rates and subsequent replacement rates.

Sexed semen has a role to play here in the future with black and white sires when the conception has improved; currently it is at 80% of conventional semen. At the moment, the financial cost of the resultant loss in fertility does not justify its use in a spring-calving system.

Breed replacements from maiden heifers

Breeding all the maiden heifers to dairy sires to produce replacements will also improve the quality of beef for the dairy herds and dairy herd profitability.

We can use better-quality beef sires on mature cows than we can on dairy heifers due to calving difficulty and our heifers should be our highest genetic merit.

5) Dairy Beef Index

Going forward, the new Dairy Beef Index (DBI) will be a useful tool in identifying easy calving, short gestation and low-mortality beef bulls that have minimal consequences on dairy cow performance, milk production or health.

They can produce progeny that are more saleable as calves and profitable at slaughter with high-carcass merit.

It will also increase the percentage of cattle meeting the minimum factory specifications of a 280kg carcass weight and grade O=.

Dairy herdowners need to record the sire, calving difficulty and exact calving date timely and accurately to ensure we have the best information possible on sire selection in the future.

Beef finishers buying calves from dairy herds need to ensure that they have the genetics to meet the carcass specifications.

Beef finishers have major difficulty when purchasing dairy calves to ascertain their beef merit, especially if purchasing them on farm at 2-3 weeks-of-age; the beef merit part of the DBI will help with this.