The dairy farm­ers who have switched to beef pro­duc­tion

Irish Independent - Farming - - FARM OUR - GERRY GIG­GINS

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.

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