‘We’re warning dairy farmers about the volume of bull calves this spring’ – Teagasc

Last year saw farmers across the country struggle to sell bull calves – both crossbred and non-crossbred – and Teagasc dairy specialist, Joe Patton, believes the spring of 2020 could prove similar.

Speaking during a panel discussion on AgriLand ‘s ‘Ploughing’ live stream yesterday afternoon, Tuesday, September 17, Joe Patton made a suggestions to dairy farmers at farm level and at national level to lesson the situation.

Cavan dairy farmer Owen Brodie also spoke during the discussion and pointed to the importance of having “markets available for all calves“.

Siobhán Ring of the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) also part in the discussion, touching on the dairy beef index (DBI) and its success this year.

Making calves more salebale

Firstly, Patton said: “All the signs are that this will be the case again this year. Certainly, from a Teagasc perspective it is something we have been trying to warn our dairy farmers about.

The idea that perhaps calves would be more saleable if they were a little bit older, is something that we have been talking about.

He continued: “Our message – for dairy farmers at least – is about auditing space on the farm and making sure that we can handle calves until they are a few weeks older.

“Our own discussion group members will say that while it is difficult to shift calves at a very young age it does get easier as calves get a little bit older.

“Perhaps there is some adjustment needed in terms of the model of how old or how young a calf is at the age of first sale.”

Providing extra space for calves ‘at peak’

The Teagasc expert warned, however, that there are considerations when it comes to extra calves.

We need to be careful about extra numbers; keeping calves for an extra couple of weeks at the peak period for a 100-cow herd equates to an extra 25 or 30 calves on the farm.

Patton added: “We should be careful that we don’t overestimate what that means.

“I think people need to deal with the couple of weeks of the peak, rather than being very elaborate in terms of having to spend a lot on extra facilities.”

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He went on to say that there were dairy farmers who had made provision for additional calf space and this has had its benefits.

It has probably improved calf health for the calf population as a whole and it has been beneficial to address that.

He continued: “Ultimately, calves will have to be sold off-farm and I think we should be prepared to keep them until they are that little bit older.”

Calf management

Moving to Owen Brodie, who is dairy farming in Co. Cavan, he milks a crossbred herd.

He said: “There is a need to manage calves that are born on the farm and take care of them ‘to make them a valuable calf’.

There is no point having lots of cows calving on your farm and then not having space for them all – or not being able to manage them all.

Brodie added: “We do need space and facilities on the farm to be able to manage calves for those two or three weeks; it is a little extra cost but if the calf has a value at the other end then that has a benefit to farmers.”

But will those calves be salable after holding out for the additional two or three weeks?

Brodie says it’s important for dairy farmers to have “as many markets as possible” to sell calves to.

The more options that are there the less chance there is of anybody getting stuck in a narrow direction of producing a calf for a market that is either flooded or doesn’t exist – or won’t give a financial return to the farmer.

“I want to keep cross breeding to get the benefits of high milk solids and I know cross breeding has paid me well over the years, so I want to keep doing that,” he added, before pointing to market availability.

But, he highlighted that there should be markets available for all calves, both poor-quality and of higher-quality too.

Dairy beef index

Turning to the DBI, Ring indicated that it was a success this year.

We have had a higher quantity of dairy beef sires; this year in comparison to the previous three years we have about 45,000 additional dairy beef sires.

She continued: “The dairy beef index now is really good because the value of those calves is about €12 higher in comparison to previous years.

“And, actually, the beef merit of those calves is of the additional value in comparison to the calving traits.

“So really when dairy farmers had been selecting for easy calving and short gestation bulls without taking cognisance of the beef merit; now because we have the dairy beef index farmers are using the beefier bulls.”

Improving the fertility of the national herd

Finally, Joe made a long-term suggestion for reducing the number of poor-quality calves coming from the national dairy herd.

He said: “If we can improve the fertility of the national herd, and cross breeding has clear benefits of doing that, the proportion of cows that need to be bred to dairy AI will be reduced.

“For instance, the most fertile herds actually have more cows bred to beef AI.”