The Thrive dairy calf-to-beef demonstration farm in Tipperary saw over 2,000 farmers pass through the gates for an open day last week.
The 45ha farm near Cashel is owned and operated by John Hally and the animals are owned by the Irish Farmers Journal, with Declan Marren overseeing the programme.
The objective of the industry-funded project is to see how high-genetic-merit dairy calves perform in a dairy calf-to- beef system. The Halley farm is one of eight in the Thrive programme.
The project was borne out of a desire to address some concerns around dairy beef. In the years after milk quotas went, dairy calf numbers increased sharply. By 2019, following the severe drought and fodder shortage of the year before, there was less demand among Irish farmers for dairy calves and so prices for some calves fell.
Since then, a debate has been rumbling around the quality characteristics of dairy calves and how these can be improved in order to make a dairy calf enterprise a more attractive prospect for beef farmers.
The average carcase weight of beef-bred steers from the dairy herd has declined. In 2010, the average carcase weight of the 186,000 steers slaughtered was 340kg while the carcase weight for the 241,000 steers slaughtered in 2021 was 335.6kg. The average carcase weight of the 127,000 steers from a dairy sire out of a dairy cow slaughtered in 2010 was 323kg. By last year, this had declined to 317kg for the 159,000 steers slaughtered.
While not a massive reduction, trends matter and the trend is towards lighter animals at slaughter. This performance mirrors a reduction in genetic potential for carcase weight in dairy calves. This has been declining gradually in both beef- and dairy-bred animals from the dairy herd over the last decade. However, since 2019 the decline has eased and it is now flat.
Lighter carcase weights need to be looked at in the context of earlier slaughtering date.
In 2010, the average age at slaughter for dairy calves with a beef sire was 30.7 months, while it was 26.9 months in 2021, almost four months younger. The average age at slaughter for dairy-bred steers with a dairy sire was 30.3 months in 2010, while it was 27.5 months in 2021 – almost three months younger.
To summarise what has happened to dairy beef since 2010, the number of animals has increased, the genetic potential for beef has decreased and cattle have been sent for slaughter at lighter weights but also at younger ages.
So what has happened at Thrive? Every year, 150 calves are purchased – a mix of bulls and heifers and a mix of early maturing and later maturing breeds. Only animals from sires with a high dairy beef index (DBI) are purchased directly from farms. The calves are genotyped to check parentage after they arrive on the farm.
Just 45 of the 150 animals reared were housed for a short period before being slaughtered. All other animals were killed off grass and didn’t see the shed in the second winter.
All animals are slaughtered at between 19 and 22 months old.
Such good performance is only possible from good management, right through from the day they arrive on the farm to the day they’re slaughtered. Grassland management is good – the ex-dairy farm is well laid out with paddocks and water troughs in each paddock.
Soil fertility is excellent and perennial ryegrass content is very good throughout. Lifetime meal feeding levels vary between 450kg for the early maturing heifers and 900kg for the later maturing bullocks.
For the animals killed last autumn/winter, the most profitable animal was the early maturing bullock, leaving a net margin of €142/head after all labour, feed, land rent, fertiliser and all other costs.
This is after an average purchase price of €196/hd at two to three weeks of age. Taking out land and labour charges and including direct payments, the Irish Farmers Journal estimates the net margin per hectare to be €710/ha.
It’s important to say that the animals reared on the Thrive farm are not average animals. They were handpicked based on their sires’ DBIs so the same level of performance is unlikely from picking a random bunch of dairy beef calves from the mart. Despite the good physical performances achieved on the farm, the net margin at €142/hd from the most profitable bunch is still quite low. A farmer would need to be finishing over 100 animals per year in order to make €15,000 per year, after all costs are considered.
Much is being made of genetics and what role it plays in animal performance. Of course this is largely outside of the control of the farmer buying these calves.
The dairy farmer decides on the genetics and then sells the calves and it’s up to the person that buys them to make the most out of them, in much the same way as a beef finisher buying weanlings doesn’t decide what bull the suckler farmer uses.
The issue with dairy calves is that from 2010 to 2018 the commercial beef value (CBV) of dairy-bred calves declined sharply but has been stable since 2018. The CBV takes into account the beef merit of the dam and the sire and so is a truer reflection of an animal’s genetic merit. The problem with the DBI is that it’s only available for bulls and it’s a composite index, made up of beef and calving traits, whereas CBV is a beef-only measure.
Just because a bull has a high DBI doesn’t mean that it will produce a calf with good beef characteristics. For example, if the DBI is weighted heavily towards calving, or if the cow the bull is mated with has a low beef value then the calf will have a low beef value. For a calf to have a high CBV, the sire and the dam will need to have a high beef value. The lower the beef merit of the cow, the higher the beef merit of the sire will need to be in order for the calf to have a decent CBV.
The conundrum for dairy farmers is that the most efficient dairy cows are those with a low maintenance figure. There is a very strong correlation between a low EBI for maintenance, low carbon footprint and low beef merit.
As things stand, there is little or no incentive for farmers to breed high-CBV calves. This is because those buying the calves won’t know what the CBV figure is. Meaningless dam breed information was included on mart boards last spring but the meaningful CBV figure won’t appear any time soon because the powers that be don’t trust dairy farmers to record the correct sire when registering the calf.
There will no progress on this until such time as CBV is included on the mart boards or as a printout to accompany the blue cards.
We don’t need to wait for a national genotyping programme to get the ball rolling on this.
There was a 25% increase in dairy beef AI use this year, surely all births as a result of all artificial inseminations verified by AI technician data or semen sales should be able to have a CBV figure?
Genetics is one thing, but profitability is another. Focusing on yield as a means of increasing profit doesn’t work in dairy farming so it’ll hardly work in beef farming. There is a risk that there is too much of a focus on genetics and not enough focus on other aspects of dairy calf-to-beef rearing that also affects profit.
That’s not to dismiss the importance of carcase size because beef processors want a carcase size for steers of between 330kg and 380kg. Factories occasionally impose heavy penalties on carcases above and below this range. How come carcase size is only an occasional issue for the factories and why aren’t they being challenged on this? It seems that they have no problem with small carcases when demand for beef is high but don’t want them when demand is poor.
Calf purchase price is another issue affecting profit. For the last two seasons, the purchase of calves for the Thrive farm has been halted because the calves couldn’t be purchased at an economic price. At €200/head, the dairy farmer selling the calf is getting one and a half times the margin of the Thrive calves.
Calf prices are in the main, set by calf buyers. Most dairy farmers have to sell their beef calves. Why is it that calf buyers are willing to pay more for calves than the Thrive programme is? Is it that these farmers haven’t done their sums on what they’ll get out of them, or is it that they have done their sums and are operating at a lower cost base and so can afford to pay more and maintain a similar, or even better margin?
On the subject of costs, there is no doubt that dairy calf-to-beef, like all beef systems is a low-margin business. Therefore, there needs to be a focus on reducing rearing costs at all stages. Teagasc research at Grange has found no benefit from feeding meals at grass to calves, yet this is common practice on many calf-to-beef farms, including the Thrive demo farm.
The same scrutiny should apply to milk powder, vet costs, labour, etc – make the system work based on animal potential and beef prices.