There are compelling reasons for dairy farmers to increase the supply of beef calves from dairy cows, says a farm consultant.
Dairy farmers would welcome the additional beef income and the calves were easier to sell, but First farm consultant Bob Thomson is warning farmers against using just any beef bull.
He said a dairy-beef calf might not be required as a heifer replacement in the dairy herd and was therefore surplus to requirements, but farmers stood to earn a lot more if they used proven beef genetics.
“The dairy-beef calf comes in many forms and possibly the best known is the high-content-friesian bull calf which is highly valued for finishing for the manufacturing beef trade,” he said.
“The white-faced hereford cross friesian calf is equally as well known, commanding a premium in the saleyards and usually finished for local-trade or for the export beef market. I’m concerned, however, that there are hundreds of thousands of dairy-beef calves that are of low value for beef finishing and end up as bobbies, raising the question ‘what can we do to make these surplus calves more valuable?”
Thomson said better beef genetics was the answer and would offer double-barrel benefits. Beef genetics must be safe to use in the dairy herd and must also increase the beef value proposition of any surplus calves.
“At farm level, by far the biggest contributor to resolving the dairy-beef challenge can be found with the selection of beef genetics that are fit for purpose”
Thomson said beef genetics had to get dairy cows in-calf easily, have a gestation no longer than dairy genetics and produce a live calf that had value as a beef finishing animal.
“The conundrum is that there are huge differences in the beef genetics on offer – on one hand we have bulls available from beef bull breeding herds with none or low genetic specification and on the other hand we have purpose-bred beef bulls (and semen) with genetic specifications that make them fit for purpose.”
He said a beef bull was usually better represented in a semen straw than on the hoof.
“Two recent industry initiatives demonstrate the value proposition for better beef genetics – the first funded by Beef + Lamb NZ which was called the Dairy-Beef Integration Project and conducted by AgResearch over five years. The second, Beef + Lamb Genetics’ dairy-beef progeny test, which is currently running on Limestone Downs.
“Both projects confirm unselected beef bulls are risky to use – they have higher levels of calving difficulty, longer gestation length and lower post-birth calf growth rate. They were often not fit for purpose.”
However, the best of the beef bulls from each project demonstrated that if farmers took the time to find beef genetics that were fit for purpose it was worth the effort, he said.
“For every day earlier calving there’s another 1.5 kilogram milk solids in the tank and that’s the thick-end of $10 per cow in the bank – so in round numbers $1000 for every 100 cows”
When it came to gestation length not all breeds were the same and not all bulls within breed were the same, he said.
Thomson said a study of beef bulls, suitable for dairy-beef production, showed that the best available beef artificial insemination bulls had breeding values for gestation length of minus 12 days meaning that when used over average gestation length dairy cows the cows would calve six days earlier.
But some beef breeds had gestation lengths that were longer than the dairy cows. For example, the gestation length of herefords was two days longer than angus and friesian, he said.
“So, when choosing a beef breed check out the gestation length for the breed and then the bull.”