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Sustainability of beef in the supply chain: Beef from the dairy herd

Beef calves and cull cows are an important output from a dairy herd, and are also vital to the sustainability of the beef supply chain.


About half of all beef in the UK currently comes from the dairy herd and with a changing landscape in terms of suckler cow vs. dairy cow numbers and increasing use of selective sexed semen, and, therefore more beef genetics being used in dairy herds, this figure looks set to rise.


And for McDonald’s, this focus on beef from the dairy herd is an important part of its ethos of creating a sustainable future for the beef industry.


Alice Willett, agricultural consultant sustainable sourcing for McDonald’s, says: “We are committed to ensuring the industry is able to achieve more sustainable production practices.”


Ms Willett adds that this commitment forms part of the company’s three Es ethos of ethics, environment and economics.


“We support beef production which is environmentally sound, protects animal health and welfare, and improves farmer and community livelihoods.”


To ensure beef from the dairy herd is a sustainable way forward, there are a number of practical considerations farmers need to address.

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To learn more about beef sustainability, visit

Richard Phelps, of Blade Farming, which is ABP’s integrated supply chain business, says it is important to consider what is required from these animals bred from the dairy herd.


He says: “Cattle must meet certain specifications throughout the supply chain. For example, our Blade rearing farms will take healthy calves which are more than 50kg at two weeks of age.”


Mr Phelps adds it is important calves are of a known disease status, and says it is essential calves have received adequate colostrum at birth.


“We run colostrum checks on the herds we are taking calves from, as we want calves to be getting the best possible start in life.”

Finishing Cull Cows

The best potential for profitable finishing of cull cows comes from either finishing them at grass or finishing them in late lactation and drying them off rapidly to prevent weight loss


Use pregnancy diagnosis to ensure cows are not pregnant and ensure medicine withdrawal periods are complied with prior to slaughter


Aim to finish cows in fewer than three months, with growth rates of at least 0.9kg/day from grass or other feeds


Source: AHDB



Clare Hill, of FAI Farms, which works with McDonald’s on several of its sustainability initiatives, says good colostrum feeding cannot be underestimated.


“These calves need the right quantity of good quality colostrum, as this will have an impact on performance further down the line.”


She adds as well as making sure calves have the right quantity of colostrum, it is also important to consider colostrum quality.


This can be addressed by testing colostrum with a refractometer or colostometer.


“If colostrum feeding is not right, growth rates will be lower and the calf will have a lower immune system, making it more susceptible to disease. This, in turn, could lead to more antibiotics being used and more grain being fed.”


Mr Phelps adds that farmers should be paying careful attention to the genetics being used.


He says: “It is important to consider what the end customer wants, so talk to the end producer you want to supply and think about how this will impact decisions around sire selection.”

Getting calves off to the best start in life

  • Calves for beef production need colostrum in the same way dairy heifer calves do
  • Their management in the first few days of life will have a big impact on lifetime performance.
  • Compared to calves which receive sufficient colostrum, those which do not have been shown to need more antibiotic treatments pre-weaning, have reduced liveweight gain and reach slaughter weight later.

The three Qs of colostrum

  • Quantity: Three litres within two hours of birth, followed by a second similar-sized feed within six to 12 hours of birth
  • Quality: Contains at least 50g/litre of immunoglobulin, which can be measured using a colostometer or refractometer, which are relatively inexpensive
  • Quickly: Within two hours of birth; absorptions of immunoglobulins progressively declines after birth Source:AHDB

Adam Buitelaar, of calving rearing specialist Buitelaar, says there are big advantages to using the right genetics.


He says: “There has long been a view that it is not possible to get a good beef animal out of a dairy cow, but now there is a great selection of bulls which cross extremely well with the dairy cow.”


Buitelaar has done two years of extensive research at the Royal Agricultural University, looking at the ‘gold standard’ of calf rearing.


Mr Buitelaar says it is important farmers set standards when it comes to calf rearing and benchmark performance against other producers.

Disease testing

  • Testing calves for BVD is a good investment, as buyers are often willing to pay a premium for animals which are known not to be persistently infected (PI)
  • PIs will have reduced growth rates and often die in their first year
  • Incidence of pneumonia can increase by 43 per cent in healthy cattle sharing airspace with a PI
  • PI calves should be culled immediately because they will shed high quantities of the BVD virus into their environment for life


For more information on BVD and options for testing, visit

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