Beef bulls adding value

Angus Bull 9 May 2017

Making use of strategically-selected beef bulls as follow-up bulls in a dairy operation adds value, with minimal downside. A four-year Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ) Genetics’ Dairy-Beef Progeny Test is now into its second year and the results make for positive reading. 

Led by Massey University’s Dr Rebecca Hickson and hosted on Limestone Downs at Port Waikato, the project’s goal is calculate the value that can be added by using high genetic-merit Angus and Hereford bulls, versus the unrecorded animals traditionally used as “follow-up bulls”. 

The project also aims to identify individual bulls that perform strongly in a dairy-beef system and analyse outcomes for both the dairy farm and finishing farm operators.

Importance of dairy sector to beef exports

The dairy sector accounts for more than two thirds of New Zealand’s export cattle. 

Export cattle processing – 2016/17 forecast figures:

Of the 2.45 million head processed  
Cull cows 37%
Cull dairy heifers 3%
Cull dairy breeding bulls 1%
Dairy farm total 41%
Dairy-beef steers, heifers & bulls 28%
Beef cows, steers, heifers & breeding bulls 31%
Sheep & beef farm total 59%
Total dairy genetic origin  
(Dairy farm total of 41% + Dairy- beef steers, heifers & bulls 28%) 69%

Background to progeny test

The first year of the B+LNZ Genetics Dairy-Beef Progeny Test saw 502 cows and 224 heifers calve in spring 2016, artificially inseminated with semen from 48 bulls. The heifers were naturally mated to 12 Angus, Hereford and Jersey bulls. These bulls were then used as follow up bulls for the cow herd.

The beef bulls were selected based on specific traits: birth weight, calving ease, gestation length, 400 day and 600 day growth and carcase traits, such as marbling.

Of the 2016 calf crop, all except 75 Jersey-sired calves born from the heifers were reared and are now being finished on Limestone Downs’ adjacent sheep and beef operation.

Dr Hickson says calving went well, with 1% calving difficulties in the cows and 8% in the heifers.

“Overall, the beef sires produced valuable calves with short gestations and few calving difficulties. There was variation among sires, indicating that sire selection is key to success in a dairy-beef system.”

2016 Calf stats  
Calves born  502 head
Birth weight 37kg
Gestation 282 days
Days to weaning 79 days
Weaning weights 85kg minimum, 90kg average

Analysis to date

Dr Hickson says results to date show that estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) work. “You can use EBVs to get the kind of calves you want. While there is individual sire variation, when you select a team of bulls, they perform where you’d expect, based on their EBVs.

“Within breed, bulls that were in the top 10% of breed for a trait were superior to bulls that had genetics similar to an average unrecorded bull.”

  Birth weight (kg) Gestation length (days)  Weaning age (days)
Hereford       
 Average unrecorded  39.0 284.5  77.5 
 Top 50% breed  37.8 282.5  76.4 
 Top 10% breed  36.5  281.5  *
 Angus      
  Average unrecorded  37.5 281.5   80.8
 Top 50% breed  35.6 279.4   78.0
  Top 10% breed  35.4  279.3

[* There is no figure, because selecting for low birth weight meant none of the bulls were top 10% for 200d weight.]

PhD student Lucy Coleman says that, based on a bobby calf being worth about $30 and a weaner $500, there is approximately $300 profit to the dairy farm, after rearing costs. 

Heifers: bull selection and performance 

Jersey bulls were selected to be breed average for liveweight and gestation length. Angus bulls selected were in the top 5% for birth weight and direct calving ease. Hereford bulls were chosen from the top 10% for birth weight and top 15% for direct calving ease.

  Jersey Angus Hereford
Number of calves 72 72 66
Birth weight (kg) 29.3 33.7 35.8
Assistance (%) 0 4 12
Mean calving date 24 July 20 July 24 July
Weaning age (days) N/A* 79.6 76.0

* Jersey calves were not reared, so weaning age was not measured.

It is worth noting that heifer liveweights were behind target at calving – about 420kg average, compared with a target of 450 kg, and calving would likely have been easier had the heifers been bigger. 

Outcomes for heifers are still being recorded – i.e. re-breeding and milk yield – but the Limestone Downs dairy farm manager likes what he is seeing and supports the trial, wholeheartedly.

On-farm perspective

Limestone Downs dairy manager Aaron Frazer says his biggest concern at the outset of the trial was around the heifers calving beef-cross calves. “You don’t want extra work on top of what’s already happening. I was quite nervous about the heifers, but now we’ve done it, I’m more than happy to do it again.”

He was surprised to see how well the beef-cross calves grew in the calf-rearing system – putting on weight easily, compared to his experience growing out Friesian calves.

What now?

The second crop of calves is due on the ground this spring, which presents an opportunity to verify results to date. Meanwhile, the steers and heifers destined for processing are being finished towards their targets of 300kg and 245kg carcass weight, respectively.

Export cattle processing – 2016/17 forecast figures:

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