Dairy Beef Index: ‘Dairy farmers are sitting up and taking notice this year’

Some dairy farmers are now looking for bulls that might be “a little bit harder” calving, but are “good” on beef merit, according to an Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) expert.

Speaking on the latest episode of FarmLand, ICBF geneticist Siobhan Ring gave the inside track on the recently developed Dairy Beef Index (DBI) just a few months after the official launch of its active bull list – which features 75 bulls from a variety of breeds.

In light of the expanding national dairy herd and, subsequently, its increased volume of beef calves, the DBI  – progressed by ICBF and Teagasc – is a breeding goal for Irish dairy and beef farmers to promote high-quality beef cattle bred from the dairy herd that are more saleable as calves and profitable at slaughter.

The DBI ranks beef bulls – for use in the dairy herd – according to their genetic merit for a range of calving performance and carcass performance traits.

The overall DBI is expressed in euros (€). Each €1 increase in DBI can be interpreted as a €1 expected increase in profit for that bull’s progeny compared to progeny born to the average Holstein-Friesian bull.

“Comparing 2010 to 2018 we’ve got about 400,000 extra dairy cows calving, and as well as that, we have almost 300,000 extra beef calves being born from the dairy herd,” said Ring.

“Dairy cows are now more fertile with the evolution of the EBI [Economic Breeding Index] and the success of that and, I suppose, there is ample opportunity now for dairy calves to increase their use of beef sires in the dairy herd.

Traditionally, dairy farmers have been concerned with selecting beef bulls for use in the dairy herd that are easy calving and short gestation.

“But, I suppose, having learned our lesson from pre-EBI [Economic Breeding Index] times where we selected in dairy cows for higher milk yield and higher milk constituents and we ignored fertility, cow fertility declined.

She points out that the DBI has been introduced in a bid to negate any potential negative effects on carcass merit and overall efficiency of the dairy-by-beef cross.

“The dairy beef index tries to find a balance between calving merit and beef merit. 64% of the index is made of calving traits, so you’re talking about selecting for easy calving, short gestation and lower calf mortality.

“In terms of the beef value side, we’re looking at increasing out carcass weight, improving carcass confirmation, lower fat and improved feed efficiency.”

Influencing decisions

The benefits for the dairy farmer are also significant, she says.

“It is simplification of your easy calving and short gestation beef bull; but also it helps you identify those progeny that will then subsequently be more salable because they are going to generate more profit at slaughter – so you’re talking about a more reliable beef market.

“This year would really make you think of it when calf price was so low that dairy farmers wanted to get the calves out of the yard and I suppose having a market there for your calves is just so important,” she said.

In terms of the beef farmer gains, Ring says they will “reap the rewards” in terms of higher carcass merit.

If we compare the progeny performance of bulls that have been most used in dairy herds over the past number of years – and compare bulls that were at the top of the DBI in January – we’re talking about a 17kg higher carcass weight on average.

“They are also one grade higher, so that equates to about €105 extra additional profit for the beef farmer just by a dairy farmer using those top DBI bulls – compared to where they were selecting for simply easy calving and short gestation with no cognisance of the beef merit of the cattle,” she said.

For dairy farmers that are interested in the index, Ring also outlined what they need to look out for this breeding season.

“A bull that has a DBI of €100 compared to a bull with a DBI of €20, the bull with the €100 will have €80 more profit than the other bull.

So, I suppose that should be influencing your decisions when you are picking bulls and then,  if you want to have the most profitable progeny it’s about selecting the bulls that have the highest DBI.

“If you are extremely focused on easy calving then you can select from the Dairy Beef Index active bull list – there are 75 bulls to choose from, from a number of breeds and a number of AI companies – there is plenty of selection available.

“If you’re looking for easy calving within that you can see bulls that are easy calving and can have short gestation – but because they are on that list they are also good on beef merit,” she said.

Fruit

As the breeding season approaches, Ring says the “fruits” of the DBI will only come to flourish over the coming months.

But so far, the feedback has been good, she notes.

“The feedback on the ground is certainly very positive – particularly with the year so far that we’ve had with Friesian bull calves making headlines for being sold for less than €1 in some cases.

“So I suppose this year dairy farmers are really focused on getting a value-added calf.

I’ve been speaking to a number of AI technicians and they have been saying that dairy farmers are now looking for bulls that might be that little bit harder calving – but are good on beef merit.

“So, dairy farmers are sitting up an taking notice this year – the Dairy Beef Index will be a space to watch in the future,” she said.

The Dairy Beef Index is available online on the ICBF website. Further information can also be made available via local advisors, AI technician and breeding companies.