The Australian dairy industry supports the development of socially acceptable and economically viable pathways for surplus calves.
Responsible breeding strategies
A ‘responsible breeding strategy’ places equal focus on the genetic merit of surplus calves and their intended purpose, as it does the replacement heifer component of the calf drop. Consideration is given to all calves likely to be born, which cows should breed them, and the most appropriate sires for each calf.
Often this involves using sexed semen and genomic selection to breed the number of replacement females needed, from the dams with the highest genetic merit in the herd. These also known as ‘beef on dairy’ breeding programs. Successfully using sexed semen within an artificial insemination program requires:
- High cow fertility – do not use sexed semen in females with compromised fertility (e.g. underweight heifers, late-calving cows, cows diseased at calving time).
- Proper semen handling.
- Good artificial insemination technique and timing based on accurate heat detection or planned mating time using a synchrony program.
Consider using genomic testing to guide selection of the most desirable females for insemination with sexed semen. To successfully use a beef on dairy program you should:
- Prioritise fertility when selecting beef sires.
- Consider Estimated Breeding Values (EBV) when choosing a beef sire.
- Select beef sires from breeds with known shorter gestation length to help cows calve earlier the following year.
- Use sires that improve carcase conformation and yield of crossbred calves while capitalising on the dairy breeds’ meat quality traits..
Whilst we know that rearing surplus calves for beef production is more socially acceptable than early life slaughter, ensuring this is economically viable can present challenges. After all, the primary focus for farmers is to run a profitable dairy farm and business. The extra work and investment needed to secure and maintain efficient beef production from the dairy herd, needs to make financial sense.
Breeding decisions that minimise impact on the dairy herd and maximise the calf’s potential for beef production is only the first step in achieving a successful beef on dairy program. From the moment a dairy beef calf hits the ground, attention to detail is vital to ensure they are set up for a productive life. Factors to consider include:
- Availability of required labour.
- Infrastructure needed to rear calves.
- Potential impacts on animal welfare or the environment.
- Potential fluctuations in seasonal conditions and commodity prices (purchased feed and beef).
The same important factors that apply to the management of replacement heifers, can be applied to calves being reared for beef including:
- Attention to hygiene
- Effective colostrum management
- Appropriate environment
- Good nutrition
- Appropriate husbandry procedures, including pain relief
- Effective weaning.
Understanding the needs of each stakeholder in the supply chain and applying it to all decision making, is vital to the success of beef on dairy programs. Fluctuations in seasonal conditions and commodity prices will continue to challenge the viability of beef on dairy systems over the long term. However, producing calves that meet market demand will help withstand this type of volatility.