Addressing the audience attending the Teagasc National Dairy Conference in Co. Cork on Tuesday, November 27, Andrew Crombie from the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) asked the crowd why they should care about the beef sector and the farmers who try and produce beef from the calves generated by the dairy herd.

“The dairy industry should care because the buyers of calves are becoming increasingly frustrated,” he explained.

He continued to describe the situation for the purchasers: “The selection process is like a lottery and year-to-year, the quality of the calves is getting worse, which is a real challenge.”

He added that buyers are responding by paying less for these calves and weanlings. He even highlighted that calf rearers are loosing money and taking a real chance on their enterprise.

Challenges facing the industry

Andrew explained that these calves are causing a challenge for both meat and milk producers due to dairy expansion.

“The issues have come about due to the majority of Irish dairy farmers using easing-calving, short-gestation bulls to sire their cows.”

For the farmer – particularly in spring – labour efficiency is very important. Andrew noted that farmers “don’t want hard calvings” which will increase labour requirements in addition to cows experiencing problems going back in calf.

“Selecting for these easy-calving traits has had negative consequences on beef attributes, particularly carcass conformation,” he noted.

More and more calves being generated by the dairy herd are going out of spec.

Dairy-beef index

This index offers a potential solution to the problem, as it ranks beef bulls for use on cows based on their estimated genetic potential to produce profitable, high-quality beef cattle, born with minimal consequence on subsequent performance of the dairy cow.

Ultimately, the new index will allow farmers to focus on the job of producing milk.

The index includes traits related to calving performance, efficiencies of production, carcass merit (yield and quality), as well as addressing current and futuristic societal demands.

List of traits and their sub-indexes which could make up a dairy-beef breeding index. Source: Teagasc

The ICBF and Teagasc are working towards the implementation of this new index for the breeding season of Spring 2019 in order to have high-quality calves for beef production on the ground the following year.

This will give the buyers of these calves a reinsurance that they are getting an animal that is capable of efficiently producing a beef carcass that will hit specs in terms of weight and conformation.

Protecting Irish dairy’s social licence

One of the alternative options Andrew explained would be to develop the bobby calf industry in Ireland.

He added that it already exists and currently about 1% of the calves from the dairy herd are slaughtered in this manner.

Andrew highlighted that this industry is growing rapidly and a decision needs to be made on whether this is part of the sector that should be promoted.

He concluded his presentation by saying that the public perception of the New Zealand dairy industry is not good – mainly due to bobby calves and pollution issues.

“This bobby calf option would be a quick fix to the increasing number of calves from the expanding dairy sector, but the view is that Ireland should not consider it,” he explained.

He added that dairy farmers want other livestock farmers to take more and more calves, but – in order to protect the social licence of their industry and to produce milk sustainably – the potential of these animals for beef production needs to improve.