Simple change could increase income from calves

Using beef sires with high breeding values for calving ease and growth can result in a win: win for both dairy and beef farmers.

Two-thirds of New Zealand’s beef production originates from the dairy industry, yet despite this, few dairy farms use beef bulls of known genetics.

The five year Beef + Lamb New Zealand Dairy Beef Integration Programme, which began in 2011, has been looking at the impact of using good beef genetics in a dairy beef supply chain.

“The use of beef sires with high estimated breeding values (EBVs) for calving ease, growth and carcass characteristics on dairy farms is not commonplace, but will produce surplus calves of higher value to dairy farmers, beef finishers and beef processors,” says AgResearch scientist and project leader Dr Vicki Burggraaf.

“Now in its fifth and final year, our project will determine the overall impact to beef finishers and the entire dairy beef supply chain.”

“Use of better beef genetics for artificial insemination (AI) and natural mating can be achieved on any dairy farm, reducing calving problems and producing a better animal for the beef industry.”

Funded by Beef + Lamb New Zealand and supported by Livestock Improvement Corporation (LIC) and Ezicalve, the programme evaluates the use of superior beef genetics in a dairy herd and the subsequent rearing and finishing of the dairy-beef progeny.

The research programme follows on from a Beef + Lamb New Zealand-funded survey of farmers in 2004 which showed that dairy farmers assumed that beef calves caused more birthing issues for dairy cows. As a result, few dairy farms use beef bulls during AI and are increasingly using Jersey or other dairy breed bulls for natural mating.

“We wanted to test this as we knew that the beef market had a high demand for better quality beef-cross animals,” says Dr Burggraaf.

For the first two seasons of the project, AgResearch’s Tokanui farm in the Waikato used Ezicalve Hereford semen, a lower cost alternative to dairy semen, for artificial insemination (AI) into a portion of the dairy herd. This was followed by natural mating with a mixture of unrecorded and Ezicalve Hereford bulls. Cows of lower breeding worth were pre-selected for insemination with beef semen which ensured dairy replacements were still bred from the best cows in the herd.  Calving ease and birth weight was recorded for each calf and parentage testing was undertaken by LIC to determine sire and dam.

Calves sired by Hereford Ezicalve bulls via AI or natural mating calved with no problems related to genetics, whereas assistance was required for 4% of calves sired by unrecorded Hereford bulls.

While the Ezicalve-sired calves had slightly lower average birth weights than those sired by unrecorded bulls, the time taken to reach 100 kg liveweight was similar across sire types. As AI-sired calves were born earlier, they reached 100 kg earlier, presenting a more valuable prospect for beef finishers. Despite Ezicalve AI-sired calves being produced from the lower breeding worth cows, this had no impact on calf performance during rearing.

These animals have been monitored at AgResearch’s Whatawhata Research farm for the last two seasons to determine their performance to finishing.

“We have done this to determine the impacts for farmers throughout the dairy beef supply chain,” says Dr Burggraaf.

“Finishing performance has been hampered by successive severe droughts, but results to date indicate there is no disadvantage to liveweight gain on hill country when using easy calving sires, despite calves being slightly smaller at birth.  Further monitoring will determine their overall lifetime performance.

“For dairy farmers, the major benefit is producing a potentially higher-value surplus calf with a low risk of calving problems.

“Finishers are supplied with potentially faster- growing and more valuable cattle and processors can benefit from improved supply of table quality beef.

“Liveweight gain during rearing was similar for calves sired by Ezicalve or unrecorded bulls. However the Ezicalve-sired calves may be more desirable to beef finishers than those from unrecorded bulls because of their high breeding values for growth, and, for those produced via AI, their earlier availability may better match feed supply and demand.”

The use of beef semen can be integrated relatively easily into the mating plan of dairy farms at a reduced cost to normal mating.

“Tailored mating requires pre-planning to determine which cows and how many to nominate for beef semen, to ensure the number of dairy replacements is not compromised,” says Dr Burggraaf.

“Use of better beef bulls for natural mating can be achieved on any dairy farm, reducing calving problems and producing a better calf for the beef industry”.

“In order to maximise the value of using better beef sires it is recommended that the calf purchaser and beef finisher are made aware of the EBVs of the sire for growth potential.”

Benefit to New Zealand

The following benefits are based on the results of this study and using conservative assumptions.  The value proposition for dairy farmers is incorporating proven beef genetics (in calving ease, growth rates and carcass parameters) that reduce calving assistance rates when compared to unproven beef genetics, and provide a lower-cost semen input during AI for lower breeding value cows.  For calf purchasers and dairy beef value chain sectors (i.e. calf rearers, beef finishers and meat processors and marketers), the provision of dairy beef animals with proven growth and carcass quality attributes provides the opportunities for higher pricing schedules and contractual value capture options.  Key impact case outputs being:

  • Of the target market size (i.e. 35% of national herd total), assumed 65% of the herds use natural mating with unproven beef bulls, with 50% of the bulls being replaced by proven beef genetic bulls (this equates to a conservative 11% of the total national dairy herd adopting proven beef genetics for natural mating).  As a result, it is estimated that for a 4% reduction in herd calving assistance (i.e. easy calving) with proven bull’s results in annual cost savings for the dairy sector of $1.1 million.
  • Of the target dairy herd market size, assumption that 30% of herds will adopt proven beef genetic AI programs for 30% of their milking herd (representing the lower breeding value percentiles).  This results in an estimated 11% of the total national herd using AI proven beef semen resulting in AI cost savings nationally of $800,000 annually.
  • Based on the delivery of 100 thousand beef cross calves in 2016 there is a projected profit opportunity for the dairy sector of $7 to $10 million – at four days of age at the farm gate.

Project Investment

Total project investment from 2011 to 2015 was $150,000 from Beef + Lamb New Zealand Limited, Livestock Improvement Corporation and the Ezicalve Hereford Group. Some tacit industry survey and farm system knowledge acquired within AgResearch over the last 10 years has also contributed to the assessment of benefits from dairy beef integration.