There is a growing number of dairy-bred beef calves being born in the GB, mainly as a result of the increase in use of beef semen within dairy herds.  A large number of these calves enter the dairy-beef production cycle and move to rearing units different to their place of birth.

There were two stages to this project.  The first involved a series of interviews with key players across the dairy-beef supply chain and secondly, a feasibility study was conducted with a commercial calf rearing business in the UK.  Three groups across the supply chain were interviewed: (i) dairy farmers (i.e calf producers), (ii) calf rearers and (iii) representatives from calf procurement companies.  The interviews delved into the current situation in terms of how dairy farmers (i.e calf producers) market these calves and if any information, over and above that supplied on the cattle passport, transfers with the calves or if there is any communication after the point of sale.  The calf rearers interviewed were asked similar questions on their selection process for calves, or if they receive any additional information about the calves they purchase.  Representatives from some of the major calf procurement companies were also asked these same questions.  The transfer of information over and above what is available on the cattle passport was found to be an informal process, with health being the main part of this dialogue between the calf producer (dairy farmer) and the calf rearer.  There also seemed to be limited feedback to the calf producer about the subsequent performance of their calves.  The main themes emerging from all the interviews centred around reputation (individual and industry), building a working relationship between the calf producer and calf rearer and ensuring good communication between both parties.  The terminology used to describe such calves along with genetics were also themes that appeared repeatedly during the interviews with all parties.  There was an overall aversion to referring to these calves as ‘surplus ’and there was growing consideration amongst the calf producers as well as the calf rearers as to the most suitable beef sires to use that fit the dairy-beef market.

The feasibility study was conducted from early February to mid-March 2022 and examined the effect of grouping calves based on their health status upon arrival at a rearing unit on their subsequent performance and health.  A total of 140 calves, from 17 farms were Wisconsin health scored and assigned a lung score from thoracic ultrasound scanning on arrival to the rearing unit.  Using this information, they were then assigned to one of five groups: (i) ‘High health’, (ii) ‘Low health’, (iii) ‘Intermediate health’, (iv) ‘Mixed health and (v) ‘Normal farm practice’, which was to keep calves from the same source farm in the same pen.  The calves were then re-scored and re-scanned after 22 days of being on the rearing unit and in their group.

Despite the number of replicates within each of the Groups being unbalanced and small in number, an emerging result from this feasibility study was that keeping calves from the same origin farm within the same pen (i.e. a single source) brought about a higher daily liveweight gain (kg/d) compared to the other four Groups.  This method of grouping calves was also the preferred option to group calves of the calf rearers that were interviewed.  There was also a degree of evidence to suggest that calves from a low health challenge environment were at risk of poorer performance and health when brought into a high health challenge environment.

Contact details:

Dr David Bell

Research Associate

Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC)