Video: What questions should I ask dairy farmers when sourcing dairy-beef calves?

In the following article/video, we will examine what factors need to be considered when it comes to sourcing dairy-origin calves for beef production, and outline some of the questions that beef farmers should ask dairy farmers when choosing suitable animals.

Purchasing calves direct from dairy farmers can have many benefits for calf-to-beef finishers. Firstly, beef farmers know the health status of the dairy herd and they can be confident that the calf has received an adequate amount of colostrum.

They can also be confident that the calf has been managed correctly in terms of milk, nutrition and water in the early days of life, which allow the animal to reach its weight targets in the future months.

It may also be possible for the calf to have received its first vaccinations prior to arriving on the beef finisher’s farm.

One of the major problems on dairy calf-to-beef farms is the purchase of calves that do not reach their growth potential due to disease in the young calf’s life, which results in poor performance in the future.

In the video (below), Teagasc Green Acres Calf to Beef Programme manager, Alan Dillon, outlines how beef farmers should go about purchasing dairy calves.

A lot of valuable lessons can be taken from the first year of the programme. The participating farmers used a number of methods to source calves last spring.

Some purchased calves directly off-farm, more attended marts and others used the services of calf buyers. Given this, the number of herds of origin present on each individual farm differs drastically.

The table (below) outlines the number of herds from which each farmer purchased calves. The farmers employing the services of a calf buyer tended to purchase calves from the most number of herds.

In addition, those operating predominantly autumn calf-to-beef systems tended to buy from more sources due to the lower availability of dairy calves towards the latter half of the year.

Generally speaking, the farmers who purchased from a high number of herds ended up with a lot of herd health issues – particularly with pneumonia – which resulted in high vet bills, and also some mortality on the farm.

Examine the genetic make-up of the dairy herd

The value of calves from the dairy herd 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 sires.

Firstly, farmers should look at the cow type on-farm and avoid cross-bred herds. Ideally, herds with Holstein and British Friesian genetics bode well.

The sire details should then be examined – whether that be a stock bull or an AI sire – to determine the calibre of the bull or sire used.

In terms of a beef sire, farmers should look for a positive figure in terms of carcass weight and conformation.

“We would always say look for a positive figure of around +10kg or as close to that as possible in terms of a beef bull that’s being used on the farm,” Alan explains.

Naturally, there will be a negative figure in terms of beef traits from Friesian sires; however, as a rule of thumb, farmers should aim for a beef figure as close to zero as possible.

Seek information on the herd’s health and feeding protocol, vaccination programme and any current or previous disease issues.

Part 1: Video series: The complete guide to buying and rearing dairy-beef calves
Part 2: Video: What can I pay for dairy-beef calves?