Viewing elite bulls from boardroom windows; touring a paddock-to-plate Parmigiano Reggiano cheese business; measuring methane emissions on pasture; and commuting in the snow...
My study tour of North America and Europe exploring the use of beef sires over dairy cows and the role of genetics in supporting the integration of the two industries was a very timely adventure!
Last year Australian dairy farmers bought over 186,000 straws of beef semen and ~16 per cent of calves born in dairy herds had beef sires, according to National Herd Improvement Association of Australia and Dairy Australia data.
The rapid increase in use of beef sires in the global dairy herd has surprised many. Reasons for this increase include: the loss (or potential loss) of male dairy calf markets, costs of rearing replacements, and fewer cows being needed to generate herd replacements due to improved fertility and increased usage of female sex-sorted dairy semen.
Which straw for which cow?
Sex-sorted dairy semen and beef semen add complexity to mating decisions. Female genomic testing remains a key tool to identify which cows to breed herd replacements from and to identify candidates for beef semen.
Yet, further opportunities exist to develop mating decision support tools that consider genetic merit alongside non-genetic factors like parity, reproductive and health history.
If dairy calves surplus to herd replacement needs can successfully enter a beef from dairy supply chain, potential benefits span improved social license, lower carbon footprint beef products and higher value non-replacement calves.
This presents an opportunity for the Australian dairy sector to consider how dairy-beef calves can meet the needs of the beef supply chain.
Stakeholders in the beef supply chain typically value growth, efficiency, and carcase traits, so these are the traits that should be considered when selecting beef sires for the dairy herd.
Calving ease is the most important trait for dairy farmers globally when choosing beef sires.
As a difficult calving contributes to lower milk production in the subsequent lactation and poorer animal welfare outcomes, this is not surprising. However, Irish studies have shown only using calving traits to choose beef sires results in dairy-beef calves with poorer carcase attributes.
Selection indices - which combine genetic merit estimates for multiple economically important traits into one single number for ranking animals - can help.
Selection indices can identify sires whose progeny will deliver calving performance for dairy farmers, growth and carcase performance for the beef supply chain, and the efficiency and sustainability metrics retailers and consumers increasingly value.
Overseas, global genetics companies are establishing in-house beef on dairy breeding and progeny test programs and creating their own indices.
Although the Irish and Nordic Dairy Beef are transparent in their composition and validation, their suitability for Australia is unclear due to differences in production systems and carcase grading systems.
Transparent validation of overseas tools in Australia could be a good first step and developing Australian indices should be considered.
A current barrier to doing this is data, particularly on dairy-beef calves.
A range of beef on dairy integrated supply chain models exist overseas.
For example, my travels included a California Wagyu X Jersey enterprise and a British semen to supermarket model for Angus x Holstein calves.
From a genetics perspective, these models help facilitate the use of genetics that the beef supply chain wants in the dairy herd.
Other benefits included risk reduction through guaranteed calf pathways and prices.
Many schemes also offer price premiums, however additional quality assurance protocols, particularly in calf management, can hinder uptake.
Establishing effective beef on dairy supply chains in Australia is a big undertaking, made harder by current beef prices, our seasonal calving patterns and limited infrastructure for large-scale calf rearing.
After 90+ interviews on my study tour and countless hours reading literature, I believe genetic tools have a role to play in supporting the use of beef sires in the dairy herd and integration of the resulting progeny into the beef supply chain.
Ultimately, facilitating the practice change, investment and infrastructure development to support an integrated beef on dairy sector requires a multi-disciplinary and collaborative approach and we should consider how we can achieve this.
- Dr Jo Newton OAM is a research scientist at Agriculture Victoria. Her study tour was undertaken through ICAR's Brian Wickham Young Person Exchange Program.