At its core, the four-year test will calculate the additional value that can be added by using high-genetic-merit beef bulls, versus the unrecorded bulls traditionally used as “follow-on bulls” in most New Zealand dairy systems. What are the financial advantages for the dairy farmer, calf rearer and beef finisher?
Limestone Downs near Port Waikato is a high-profile trust-owned property, covering 3,200 ha and wintering about 27,000 stock units. It has a long-standing relationship with Massey University and is often used to trial research projects in a commercial setting. The operation converted 350ha to a dairy milking platform two years ago and runs 610 Friesian cows and 190 heifers.
Beef + Lamb New Zealand chief executive Dr Scott Champion says the inclusion of a dairy herd and dairy-beef progeny in the test is significant for both the dairy and the beef sectors. “A 2015 analysis indicates there is up to $61 million worth of economic potential annually for the beef sector, if better quality beef bulls are used over dairy cows.
“But we realise that dairy farmers, calf rearers and beef finishers all need more information and/or financial incentive to change practices and value better quality young beef animals. The hope is that adding a dairy-beef component to this highly-commercial test will provide robust, comparative information that will help all parties recognise exactly what better genetics will add to their bottom lines.”
Dr Champion says that one of the project’s objectives is to introduce a dairy-beef genetic index, that clearly quantifies the economic benefit of recorded bulls.
Supported by Massey University, Limestone Downs’ management is encouraged to constantly question policies and number crunch all cost-benefit equations. The dairy operation is no different. Therefore it may be less surprising to learn that all of the dairy operation’s cows and heifers are being used in the trial.
Limestone Downs manager Alf Harwood (pictured with dairy manager Aaron Frazer ) says it was Aaron who first raised the possibility of using beef bulls across the entire dairy herd and instead buying in dairy replacements.
“We are in a slightly unusual position, in that we are the beef finisher and the dairy farmer. Without the need to breed replacements, all we need from our dairy herd is to get in calf and calve easily. Then, from a beef finishing perspective, for calves to grow as fast as possible.”
He speaks from experience. Limestone Downs sold the last of its 1300 Angus-Hereford beef cow herd 17 years ago, when the figures simply did not stack up and the lack of flexibility became frustrating to the system. The dairy industry has been the source of their beef stock ever since.
The dairy platform – including maize crops and dairy support for replacement heifers – occupies about 500ha in total. A move to buying in replacements on the open market ticked a lot of “benefit” boxes.
Ninety-four bulls will be used in total. The cows are being mated by AI to Angus and Hereford bulls that are either:
a) high merit – that is top performers within their breed for calving ease, gestation length and 400-day calf weight, or
b) equivalent in genetic merit to the average commercial bulls available this year.
Heifers will run with Jersey, Angus and Hereford bulls. The Jersey bulls used will represent the breed average for liveweight, while the Angus and Hereford bulls will be of low birth-weight and short gestation length.
In the 2015/16 season – when calves are on the ground – measurements will be made for gestation length, calving ease and calf birth weight. At processing, steers and heifers will be assessed on their carcase traits. The success rate of cows to get in calf again will also be recorded. The test will involve two cohorts of calves, born in 2016 and 2017.
While this is a stand-alone progeny test, it will be genetically linked to the B+LNZ Genetics beef progeny test already underway on five large commercial properties throughout New Zealand – by using selected sires across operations. This will provide comparisons around how the bulls perform in two different systems.