Well-bred dairy beef calves could make bobby calves history and be a new high value income stream for dairy and beef farmers, Jackie Harrigan reports.

Beef consultant Bob Thomson can see a time when it will not be acceptable to kill 2.5 million bobby calves each season and he suggests that time is less than 10 years away.

But use of the right beef genetics could see a bobby calf problem turned into a high value young tender beef product commanding a premium in export markets.

Limited years for bobby calves is the view of a growing number of dairy and beef industry players and it will be driven by our markets, he says.

“We can bang out our beef to non-discerning customers and it might not worry them, but as we shift our dairy and beef products further up the value chain our more discerning customers will not want to see products from a value chain associated with the bad news story around bobby calves.”

The AgFirst beef consultant says it’s fantastic how the industry has improved handling practices but he doesn’t see it as a long term fix.

When he worked for a meat company in the late 1990s he talked about working with a customer sitting on your shoulder, and seeing the issues through the eyes of someone buying your products.

“It’s a different slant that makes you far more consumer focused,” he says.

In addition, he says there is a rising tide of bad feeling about killing so many calves so the industry needs to front up and start talking about how they will be reared – make it an opportunity not a problem.

If all of those calves are going to be raised for beef the issue is going to fall to dairy farmers to start thinking about how to produce calves with maximum beef value.

If dairy farmers use the right beef bulls to cross with their dairy cows the calves can be a great value proposition, for them and the finisher and we just need to market them as such, Thomson says.

Dairy beef progeny test

Having been involved in the Dairy Beef Progeny Test run by Beef + Lamb NZ with associate professor Rebecca Hickson from Massey University as scientific lead, Thomson says there are beef bulls with genetics to easily produce dairy-cross offspring to fit a young, lean and tender product profile with enough rib fat for finish.

Starting in 2015 at Limestone Downs in the Waikato, over 30 beef bulls were tested each year for two years before transferring the programme to Wairakei Renown dairy unit on the Central Plateau. Up to 21 bulls are progeny tested annually by artificial insemination (AI) over dairy cows at Pamu-owned Renown, with all offspring finished on neighbouring Orokonui Station and processed and assessed through Silver Fern Farms. Over 150 bulls have now been tested, with genetic links between years and links to bulls tested in a similar Beef Progeny Test scheme.

The Dairy Beef Progeny Test has added information including gestation length and calving weight and Thomson says it is the only multibreed analysis in NZ to deliver to commercial farmers what they need to know.

“The bulls on offer are amazing,’’ he says, “We should be really excited by the potential of them.”

Bulls from eight different breeds have been tested including carcase data so far, with more breeds coming onstream next year and Thomson says it is interesting seven breeds are represented in the top carcase weight stats.

“There is a high level of interest in the test, and beef farmers are paying to get their bulls in and tested. Bulls that do well are often picked up by semen companies to market semen from.”

Thomson feels the beef industry has taken the dairy industry for granted in the past, but now proof exists that these beef bulls are a real value proposition for dairy farmers.

“We can really only find those curve bender bulls through progeny testing, not just through estimated breeding values (EBVs). EBVs do work but they are predicated on an average, but the outlier bulls with low birthweight and good growth rates are in there somewhere – now we are identifying them.”

“When you are dealing with dairy cows and the focus is on short gestation and ease of calving, you need progeny tested bulls. We have bulls in the test that farmers can safely use over their heifers but that have progeny that will go through to be top carcase weight offspring.”

“There is a huge genetic difference between buying unmeasured beef bulls from an unregistered breeder and these bulls in the progeny test trial.”

“And these bulls are available from a breeding company for $13 or $14/straw.”

Testing genetics

Rebecca Hickson agrees the dairy beef progeny test has been great to see if genetics were expressed differently in a dairy beef system. Gestation length and birthweight EBVs matched up really nicely but the growth EBVs, when used in a dairy
setting, were more problematic, Massey Unversity’s associate professor Hickson said.

“The 400 and 600-day EBVS are still useful but the 200-day weight EBV is not a good predictor  as dairy calves tend to be weaned at a fixed weight rather than age, like beef calves.”

“But better pre-weaning growth genetics tend to wean faster which is beneficial in the dairy-beef system.”

Progeny testing has identified the bulls who are fine for cow or heifer calving but have the potential to get more finishing performance for the same calving performance. The progeny trial is now co-funded by B+LNZ and LIC and breeders pay $1250 for each bull tested with LIC having first right to purchase semen, or $11,250 if the breeder wishes to retain semen rights.

“LIC retain first rights to sell semen to the dairy industry from the top performing bulls – and will take 30,000 straws as a first order for the owner if the bull meets the standard to be included in a semen team.”

It’s not a get rich quick scheme though, Hicksons points out.

“There is a 3.5 year wait time to see how the progeny of tested bulls kill out, so breeders need to have a long horizon to keep the bull around while awaiting results.”

While she shares Thomson’s enthusiasm for young lean beef product, Hickson says she looks forward to seeing more pull through from the finisher to the dairy farmer, specifying the type of dairy beef genetics they want to be processing and marketing.

“The more we see the information flowing, the more the behaviour will change.”

The project has already produced enough work for two PhD candidates and Hickson has plans for more work, looking at a Dairy Beef Index with a built-in safe calving ease level that is not skewed towards low growth, more work on what the cows’ genetics mean for growth and finishing potential and identifying more heifer-mating suitable beef bulls.

Young lean tender beef from Fonterra?

Bob Thomson can see a future when dairy farmers need to cut cow numbers and dedicate some of their land area to rearing beef.

“That would be a win for the environment too – but there has to be the returns in it.”

“If it’s the dairy farmers’ responsibility to rear 2.5 million calves, they might have to cut a million cows to free up land to do it, and they will need to be making a good margin from the beef.”

Thomson says it would be feasible to get carcases to a ready-to-slaughter product at 170-220kg CWT, finishing them off pasture or crop between November and May, and definitely before the second winter.

“We have to accept a lower carcase weight from one winter finishing, because if we go across two winters, three times as much land will be required.”

“The feed conversion ratio is very good for finishing over one winter – and therefore the  greenhouse gas efficiency is way higher too. With a good beef quality and produced under a high-level quality assurance scheme, the beef will be a product with truly sustainable credentials.”

“Why not produce a whole new product, with a limited seasonal window of production, like oysters – build an overseas market that appreciates the lean, tenderness of the beef only available in the season.”

And if the meat company marketers can’t see through to market opportunities then perhaps the dairy companies should step up and market it as an associated product to their other low carbon, sustainable proteins, says Thomson.

“It’s a byproduct of the dairy production industry – why shouldn’t Fonterra market it?”

“Offer farmers a decent value-based payment system and a traceable product back to sire and dam and stop making bobby calves a problem – look at them as an asset to be maximised.”

“First steps are getting proven semen in the cows, connecting dairy farmers with beef farmers and securing a market.”

In the meantime, Thomson says we need to join the dots and realise that planting trees on hill-country that could rear dairy beef will put more pressure on the easy country when farmers have to rear their own bobby calves.

“While there’s an economic argument for production of forestry and carbon farming on the hill country, there is not one for replacement of our dairy farms with beef, or trees and carbon. If we think about NZ as one big business we will be worse off because dairy farming will beat trees and carbon everyday of the week.”

Top carcase weight bull in progeny test:

Carcase weight: 22kg heavier carcase at 600days Birthweight: +2kg heavier but proven easy calver on mixed age dairy cows Weaning age: -7.7days to reach 75-85kg LWT Weaning weight: +14kgLWT at 200 days Yearling weight: +35kg at 400days Rib fat: +1.3mm

Key insights from the Dairy Beef Progeny Test report

  • There is a huge pool of bulls available that can be used safely over dairy cows and offer an improvement in gestation length and calf value.
  • High quality beef can be produced from dairy beef calves, improving industry sustainability.
  • Consideration of finishing traits, as well as calving traits, when selecting bulls, can greatly increase the value of the calf to the rearer and finisher, without impairing calving performance.
  • The sire has a big impact on growth and carcase traits of dairy-beef calves. i.e. not all white-face or Angus calves are equal.
  • Calves that are heavy at four days of age are not necessarily heavy at finishing.
  • Knowing the sires’ EBVs will help judge potential.

Results are on the B+LNZ Genetics website, found under: www.blnzgenetics.com/files/1591244923_2020-04%20DBPT%20Autumn%20interim%20report-V3.pdf Or bitly link: https://bit.ly/3hCjLNj