CAFRE to launch new dairy beef knowledge transfer project

Northern Ireland’s College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) has announced plans to launch a new dairy-beef programme to help make finishing dairy-bred bullocks more profitable.

Recent data produced by the Livestock Meat Commission showed that 41% of the 2019 prime cattle produced in Northern Ireland originated from the dairy herd.

Because this figure is expected to rise, CAFRE has established that there is potential to demonstrate profitable dairy calf to beef systems.

This new knowledge transfer project is based on research conducted by Teagasc – a project conducted in partnership with AgriLand.

Lowering the finishing age

Natasha Ferguson, a beef technologist at CAFRE, said: “A well-managed dairy beef steer system has the potential to sustainably produce consistently high-quality beef in addition to positive margins at farm level whilst meeting market requirements.

“The average age at slaughter of dairy-origin steers across Northern Ireland in 2019 was over 26 months. CAFRE is aiming to reduce the age at slaughter of our dairy-bred steers from an average of 24 months to 20 months.

The main driver of this change in the system is to maximise grass utilisation, maintain the stocking rate across the farm and to potentially reduce the carbon footprint.

“This system reflects favourably on animal welfare as the animals have access to pasture over an extended grazing season.”

The dairy-bred calves originating from the CAFRE dairy herd are reared in the new CAFRE calf-rearing facilities on automatic feeders.

These dairy beef calves are weaned at 10 weeks-of-age and are transferred to the weaning shed until turnout.

Currently, 40 Holstein-cross steer calves have been retained for the project entitled ‘Management of dairy-bred beef calves to maximise lifetime performance’.

Key management areas identified for demonstrating within this project include:

  1. Colostrum quality, feeding and management;
  2. Determining successful passive transfer of colostrum;
  3. Animal nutrition;
  4. Animal health;
  5. Grassland management;
  6. Growth performance.

Natasha Ferguson continued: “A key element to a profitable dairy calf-to-beef system is the efficient utilisation of grazed grass.

“Grazed grass is the cheapest source of energy for ruminants and is capable of supporting high levels of animal performance.

The aim of this current grazing season is to implement a rotational grazing strategy to maximise calf performance at grass.

“Using grass measurement software we aim for pre-grazing cover targets of 3,000kg DM/ha grazed to approx. 1,600kg DM/ha.

“Calves will also receive a daily allocation of 1kg concentrate at grass and performance monitored regularly in conjunction with routine procedures.

“This concentrate level can be increased if grass availability becomes an issue with the current weather conditions.

“The 15 autumn-born Holstein steers were turned out to grass on May 4, 2020. Average turnout weight was 239kg averaging six months of age [achieving 1.2kg daily live weight gain from birth].

“At present, the calves are slightly above the target weight of 220kg at six months of age, which will be beneficial for housing in the autumn. To maximise grass production and the utilisation of soil fertility, drainage, sward composition and paddock infrastructure need to be optimised on the farm.”

Target weights for the dairy calf-to-beef project should be as follows:

  • Six months – 220kg with a Daily Liveweight Gain (DLWG) of 0.9kg;
  • 14 months – 450-470kg with a DLWG of 1.0kg;
  • 18-20 months 600-800kg with a DLWG of 1.2kg.

“Over the next two to three years we will be providing regular updates on this project in the form of press updates and knowledge transfer awareness events,” Ferguson added.

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