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Attention to detail is key in dairy beef enterprise

October 14, 2021

Recently members of the North Western Beef Finishing Business Development Group join together for a meeting kindly hosted by arable and beef farmers, Richard and Andrew Blair.  On the night, the Blair’s gave the group a farm walk, focusing on the different stages of the dairy calf to beef system, the opportunities and the challenges it presents. 

According to the Livestock Meat Commission, August 2021 figures show an increase of 12.3% in calf registrations compared to the August 2020 figures.  Of this, beef sired calf registrations increased by 16%, while dairy male calf registrations decreased by 10.4%.  While these figures present opportunities for certain farmers, it is important to determine the potential of any enterprise and the challenges it may pose on the way to achieve positive margins.

The dairy calf to beef system relies on smooth and economical transition from the dairy farm to the beef farm.  Whilst the ideal arrangement would be private and trusted on farm purchasing, increasing 2021 calf prices mean many dairy farmers are returning to the mart to maximise sale prices.  With tight margins from the start and optimum health, nutrition and growth required, dairy calf to beef producers need to set out clear and realistic targets in order to meet processor requirement.

Faith explains that the first hurdle comes in the form of the calf purchase and rearing phase.  With milk production the main aim of the dairy farmer, the focus will be easy calving beef bulls, with limited significance placed on beef production characteristics.  Genetic progress is being made but needs to involve the combined effort of both dairy and beef farmer with an established relationship.  On the Blair farm, after arrival, stress is minimised by keeping calves in the batch they are purchased and ensuring the individual calf drinks and is offered concentrate.  Calves are then vaccinated for pneumonia and IBR.  Housing is important and calves are batched to minimise competition.  Plenty of straw, produced from the arable enterprise, is used for ensuring a deep, dry bed in a well ventilated shed. 

To keep feed costs to a minimum, optimum utilisation of grass and forage is a must.  The Blair’s aim for a turn out as soon as weather conditions allow, generally in April.  Grass is managed through paddock grazing, allowing Andrew and his Father to make better decisions and keep a steady supply of grass ahead of cattle. Temporary electric fencing is used to create grazing paddocks, therefore allowing adjustments to be made depending on group sizes and ground conditions.  The lighter live weight allows an earlier turn out with less potential damage to the ground and potentially a longer grazing season.  Andrew found the calves performed best when offered fresh grass every few days and so adjusts paddocks to suit.  A target of 1kg DLWG is achieved when practising this. 

Prior to housing, Faith reiterates that it is important for animal health to be optimised.  To extend the grazing season and keep stress levels to a minimum, the cattle are fed concentrate at the back end of the grazing period.  When housed, Andrew ensures that cattle have the correct feeding and lying space with good ventilation.  Silage quality plays another key role in dairy calf to beef systems.  The target should be to produce high D-value silage, 75 is desirable, if it can be achieved.  This will help increase intakes and reduce concentrate reliance.  In relation to concentrates, energy and protein are both important so make sure to check the ration label for quality ingredients.  The ration should have a good inclusion rate of cereals with high quality protein to allow a 16% protein content. 

For cattle where the aim is to finish off grass at the end of the second grazing season, concentrate will have to be offered.  This should be offered at a rate that depends on the early or late maturing nature of animals, sex and weight.  Cattle during the finishing phase on the Blair’s farm are regularly weighed along with visually assessing the level of finish and fat.  This is more easily done on an individual animal basis when in the race and crush.  Remember, it takes three times as much energy to lay down 1kg fat than it does muscle.  Therefore, any reduction in DLWG is monitored to minimise this risk.  The Blair’s target a finishing weight of between 600kg-650kg below 24 months for both heifers and steers.

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) and the European Union fund the Business Development Groups Scheme and the establishment of Technology Demonstration Farms across Northern Ireland under the Innovation Technology Evaluation Demonstration (ITED) Scheme, as part of the Rural Development Programme.