The dairy farmers who have switched to beef production
HOPEFULLY by now everyone has recovered from the extended Ploughing Championships!
I, like a lot of people who attended as an exhibitor, had mixed emotions about having to stay the fourth day, but as usual, the infectious spirit of the Ploughing quickly washed away any of the inconvenience of the queues for food, traffic jams, muck, wind and rain.
The week before last, I spent a most interesting few days in Denmark, where I was consulting on numerous roseveal beef farms.
Denmark, like most other Scandinavian countries, is suffering from huge forage deficits, to an even greater extent than we are in Ireland.
As most animals are housed on a continuous basis over there, the dependence on grass silage, whole crop cereals and maize silage is great.
While I was there, the maize harvest was just being completed and crop yields were about 50pc less than had been expected.
A further complication with the maize crop was that owing to high temperatures at the time of pollination, grain set was very poor, which resulted in poor starch yields.
Most of the maize crops in Denmark are a month ahead of normal harvesting time; plants are dead, with no green material showing, which increases the potential of mycotoxin contamination at the time of feeding.
Grass silage is in scarce supply and the Danes generally rely on using a lot of whole crop cereals, which is now of low quality due to poor grain yields.
As with those who are short of forage in Ireland, southern Europe is the main area from where they are seeking to bridge the gap on supply.
I saw truck-loads of Spanish straw, Lucerne hay from Italy and baled forage maize from Romania and Bulgaria — just like what we are seeing in Ireland.
The veal industry is a well integrated part of Danish agriculture.
The veal market is based on 10-month-old bulls and heifers from the dairy industry.
Curiously, most of the farms that I visited were exdairy farms. The Danish dairy farmers continue to be among the most indebted farmers in the world, with it not being uncommon for farms to carry a debt of up to €30,000 per cow.
In 2015/16, a lot of dairy farms ceased production or went bankrupt. I visited a number of these dairy farms which had converted to veal beef production.
Pure Holstein bulls are the most available animals for entering into the veal production system.
The units I was visiting were finishing between 800 and 1,500 bulls annually. The market criteria for the pure Holstein is to have the bulls no older than 10 months of age, with a carcass weight of between 220 and 240kg, with 2 = in fat score.
The next most popular animal was cross-bred Holstein Belgian Blue.
These were producing some excellent carcasses; bulls were finishing at 260 to 280kg, also at 10 months of age, with the vast majority grading R+ and quite a high proportion making it into the U grade.
As the Danish herds are all-year-round calving, the veal units had a steady supply of calves; 14-day-old Holstein calves are trading at approximately €90 per head, with Belgian Blue crosses making about €100 more.
There is a significant number of pure Jersey herds in Denmark, and it is interesting that quite an amount of cross-breeding for beef is done by using Belgian Blue.
One farm that I visited was taking Belgian Blue/ Jersey cross heifers to slaughter for a special niche market and were reaching 170/180kg a carcass.
It made me wonder whether any Irish dairy farmers with Kiwi-cross cows could be brave enough to cross with a well-selected Belgian Blue bull to help improve the quality of the male progeny.
Current beef prices of approximately €3.70/ kg for O grade under-10month-old veal calves is, as with Ireland, below where Danish farmers would wish it to be.
But most units I visited are achieving high weight gains with very good feed efficiency, low debt levels, reduced labour requirements and a different lifestyle compared with their dairy counterparts.