The Thrive dairy calf-to-beef demonstration farm in Cashel, Co Tipperary, takes in 140 calves every year and brings them through to beef at between 18 and 21 months of age at the end of second grazing season.
The aim is to draft as many as possible off grass and avoid needing a second winter period. The demo farm is also different in that we are trailing both bullocks and heifers from multiple breeds – both early-maturing (Angus and Hereford) and late-maturing (Limousin and Belgian Blue) type cattle.
All cattle on the farm are sired by known high-beef-value Dairy Beef Index (DBI) bulls and sourced from known herds.
The overall aim of this is to determine the genetic potential of these animals when reared at a high level of technical efficiency.
The reason we have selected a system that slaughters animals at the end of second grazing season is due to economics.
When we do the numbers on winter finishing these types of animals, at best we are breaking even in the vast majority of cases.
Looking at this year’s data, of the 65 heifers to be slaughtered, 56 or 86% were drafted off grass.
For the bullocks, from a total of 76, we managed to draft 35 or 46% of the total off grass this year
This is up on the 63% of all heifers drafted off grass last year. In breed terms, this translates to 15 Angus heifers (88% drafted) one Belgian Blue (25%), 29 Herefords (97%) and 11 Limousins (79%).
For the bullocks, from a total of 76, we managed to draft 35 or 46% of the total off grass this year. Again, this is an increase from 32% off grass in 2020.
Looking at the breed breakdown for the bullocks, seven Angus (58%), no Belgian blue (0%), 26 Hereford (62%), one Limousin (33%) and one Aubrac (17%) were drafted off grass this year. This is a similar story to last year, and proves once again that this system is more suited to the earlier-maturing breed types.
Looking at the cattle housed for further finishing, two things become clear – there are more of the late-maturing breed types as well as cattle (from all four beef breeds) that are clearly from a larger framed, more Holstein-type cow.
For the animals housed, the nine heifers have been increased to 4kg of a 12% protein finishing concentrate, while the bullocks are up to 5kg/day of the same ration and ad-lib first-cut silage.
This week has seen a sizeable draft of the remaining bullocks in the shed.
They had an average carcase weight of 310kg and came to a value of €1,350/head. The average carcase fat score was -3, which shows how close they were to being finished off grass.
Making a 19-month system work
It is easy to say all farmers should be operating a system where animals are slaughtered off grass at the end of the second season, eliminating an expensive indoor finishing period. However, the Thrive demo farm is able to slaughter cattle off grass at the end of the second grazing season is down to three main factors:
If we widen these three points out to an industry level, we see where the potential issues lie for dairy beef.
Calves of known genetics
As stated earlier, we use calves of known genetics sired by high-DBI AI bulls.
In 2020, just 19% of beef calves born from dairy cows were sired by AI, 36% were sired by a stock bull and 45% had no sire recorded at all.
This is a huge stumbling block for the industry. Dairy-beef farmers are purchasing calves in the dark by not knowing the genetics. But knowing the sire alone is not enough. The dairy cow brings half the genetics to the party.
Currently farmers can see the dam breed according to the greatest proportion of genetic makeup, however the full story is not available.
Early spring-born calves
Throughout the Thrive programme, this has been one factor that has really come to the fore.
Each year, the programme farmers gear up to be ready for calves arriving earlier and earlier, as they can see the benefits of the earlier-born calves.
It is safe to say a calf born in late-March or April has no chance of being finished prior to a second winter period.
Unfortunately, these are the months of the year when large numbers of dairy-beef calves are born.
By the time these calves are reared and out eating grass, you will be well into June and a lot of the potential for cheap weight gain for the year has passed by.
It won’t be until September that these calves will have any significant capacity for grass intake, at which time the feed value of grass can be diminishing.
The Thrive demo farm has land of excellent quality and has grown 12.5t DM/ha on average over the last two years. This is around 150% to 175% more than the average drystock farm. As well as growing a lot of grass, the farm is set up to utilise a huge amount of what is grown – a well-designed paddock system, farm roadways and water infrastructure that allows for further sub-division of paddocks.
This is not and probably will not happen on a lot of farms rearing these types of animal.
The result is that animal liveweight is not sufficient to be slaughtered off grass at the end of a second grazing season and winter finishing, or indeed a partial third grazing season, will be required.