The need to minimise bobby calf production has led to a growing interest in using beef bulls for tailing the dairy herd.
When selecting beef bulls to breed with dairy cows, it’s important to pick a bull that produces low birth weight calves.
It’s certainly not a case of buying any cheap bull, crossing your fingers, and hoping for the best.
The cost of the number of downed or lost cows due to oversized calves, vet bills and the corresponding loss of those cows’ lifetime of production can quickly turn that cheap bull into a costly one.
Most dairy farmers prefer to seek out beef bull breeders who specialise in breeding bulls with easy-calving genetics.
James and Ella Bailey own Momona Herefords. They’ve been running their 600ha Tirau, Waikato farm for 15 years. Their farm business is part of a group of one drystock unit and two dairy units.
Their farm’s terrain varies from rolling to steep. The Hereford breeding unit consists of 180 cows and their progeny, and they also run 2400 Coopworth ewes. The dairy unit’s young stock are raised on their farm and the dairy beef calves are raised and grown through to two years old.
“We decided on the Hereford breed primarily for their temperament. Farmers seek out white-faced calves, and the Hereford bulls’ calves provide that physical indication of a dairy-beef cross. We sell well-grown yearling bulls that are suitable for mating dairy cows,” James Bailey says.
“We primarily sell our bulls to dairy farmers. Any bulls that don’t make our annual sale are used to tail our dairy farm’s cows. So we try to walk the talk by using the same type of animals that we market to dairy farmers.”
No dairy farmer wants a stroppy bull around the shed during mating. The Baileys have done a great deal of work on the temperament of their herd, and select their bulls for good temperament alongside growth rate and calving ease.
It’s now very difficult for farmers to find experienced staff. Quiet bulls are essential because many farm staff aren’t used to working with bulls.
“Heats may be missed altogether if staff aren’t well-versed and proactive in heat identification. Whereas a bull will always find on-heat cows,” Bailey says.
“It depends on everyone’s individual farming system and what they’re trying to achieve, but when taking staff and AI technician costs into account, bulls may be a more cost-effective option.”
Their bull calves are tagged and weighed at birth to ensure good breeding choices are made around the calves they select as replacements.
They purchase high quality registered low birthweight sires and have learnt from those breeders that it’s important to aim for reliable average birth weights.
“You do want low birth weights, but it’s important to maintain a consistent weight and to not have any outliers.
“Those outliers are what give you calving issues. It’s a balancing act, though, because a bull calf with a ridiculously low birthweight is never going to get to the size required to mate a dairy cow herd either,” Bailey says.
Most of their clients buy their bulls biennially. They use the bulls for two seasons before sending them to the processor and will often receive their initial purchase price back.
Many farmers utilise split calving or winter milking, so get an extra mating out of their bulls. A two-year cycle is another reason farmers need well-mannered bulls. No one wants a stroppy bull on the farm for two years.
“To get bulls that are big enough to use for mating at 12-15 months old, they must have the genetics to gain weight fast. We keep the bulls that we use on the dairy farms for a couple of years, and put them on a maintenance diet over winter so they don’t grow too big. After their final mating we open the feed up for them and they quickly gain weight,” Bailey says.
The farm operates a closed system to minimise any biosecurity risks and give assurance to their clients.
The Baileys feel very fortunate to have repeat clientele and they’ve always encouraged feedback from their clients and also work closely with stock agents Findlay Livestock and NZ Farmers Livestock.
The bulls going into their own dairy herds enable them to receive first-hand feedback.
“I think there’ll always be a place for Hereford bulls within the dairy industry. There are changes occurring, such as using collars to identify heats. But farmers have to keep on top of costs and often that just means keeping it simple. Each one of us is fine-tuning our operation or looking over the neighbour’s fence for ideas,” Bailey says.
“We’re just trying to do a good job for our clientele. People are always welcome to visit and check out our operation and come to our yearling bull sale on the 27th of September.”
This article first appeared in the September edition of our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.