A number of readers have asked if it is possible to start a beef enterprise using bull calves from dairy farms. Beef farming is a profitable venture because of the huge demand for beef which is currently not being met through local production.
Farmers can raise or buy calves or weaners, then feed and fatten them for slaughter. The enterprise is particularly suitable for the dry mid-altitude and dry transitional zones like Machakos, Makueni, Kitui, Taita Taveta, Elgeyo Marakwet and Baringo counties.
Should you creep feed bull calves?
Bull calves, like all calves, need timely, high-quality colostrum at birth which is critical to future health and performance. Creep feeding then becomes an option based on cowherd goals, forage type and availability and marketing. “Bulls can be started on creep feed immediately but creep feed intake will vary among calves. In situations where forage quality is poor late in the grazing season, creep feeding is a management tool to keep bull calves growing, and can be a weaning management tool.
How to raise bull calves
Usually, farmers keep cattle either for milk or beef, or both. Dairy cattle breeds like Friesian, Aryshire and Jersey are usually reared for milk in intensive systems. In Kenya, the majority of small-scale farmers keep these breeds under zero-grazing or semi-zero grazing units. Some of the breeds that are bred specifically for beef include Boran, Sahiwal (and its crosses) and Fleckvieh. These do well in arid and semi-arid areas because they are tolerant to the harsh conditions, including tick- borne diseases.
Fleckvieh is one popular dual-purpose breed that has come into the market. It is possible to raise bull calves for meat, either as part of the dairy enterprise or as a separate enterprise. Usually dairy farms do not keep bull calves for long periods because they consume milk that would otherwise be sold or consumed at home and compete with heifers for careand management. Many farms, therefore, dispose-off bull calves in different ways, depending on the economics and type of production.
- Selling the bulls after birth
- Slaughtering them after birth, although the market for veal (calf meat) is not yet developed in Kenya. Those who slaughter them at birth usually do so to feed their dogs.
- Rearing them as beef steers.
- Rearing them as possible future sires (bulls kept for serving cows).
The decision to either sell off or keep bull calves is based mainly on the cost of rearing them – the price of milk versus disposal price and the genetic value of future sires. Most of the bull calves in Kenya found among dairy farmers are not of high genetic value because the farmers are still improving their animals. Bulls from well established dairy farms with pedigree animals would cost more.
Planning for beef production
Good planning and preparation are essential for successful beef production. Firstly, it is very important to ensure adequate fodder is available for your animals throughout the year. Secondly, you need to know where you will get bull calves and what ages they will be – the younger they are, the more delicate they are likely to be and the more care they will need. Thirdly, determine the desirable finishing weights, as this will affect the need for housing and water, and expertise needed to successfully run such an enterprise.
The right age
Young dairy bull calves are usually disposed from 2 days old to 1 month old. When sourcing for bull calves make sure you negotiate for friendly rates, especially if they are still young because you will need to feed them with milk for at least 2 months or use milk replacers. Unless you have a steady supply of milk, it is advisable that you get calves aged 2 months and above, although you may pay more – sometimes their cost can be worked out according to the number of litres of milk they have consumed. Buy older calves that have had enough colostrum, which builds the immunity of the calf.
When the calves arrive at the farm, isolate them into an area where you can observe them closely for two weeks. This enables you to prevent the spread of diseases. As a standard practice, house calves in individual stalls until they are 2 months old. Afterwards, separate calves according to weight to make feeding and management easier. Give them milk or milk replacer for those that are yet to be weaned, calf pellets for those which have been weaned or are close to weaning, and plenty of fresh water and feed.
Calves get easily stressed, so handle them with care. Have a veterinarian on standby for new calves, to advice on diseases to vaccinate against in your region and also recommend appropriate program for internal and external parasites. Ticks and resultant East Coast Fever (ECF) are one of the greatest threats to young calves.
If the bulls were from pedigree cows, they grow faster (similar to cross breeds, which exhibit hybrid vigour). You can sell them for slaughter at 18-24 months. Bulls from foundation animals take longer to reach market weights of at least 300kgs. As for the market, local butcheries provide the best outlets unless a farmer has enough numbers to seek for markets in other towns. Approach a butcher who can slaughter the animal and pay based on carcass weight.
Dairy-beef animals fetch lower prices because compared to traditional beef breeds like Boran, they have lower carcass yields because of higher bone-meat ratio. Finishing off with high quality forage and supplements helps reduce this ratio.
Caution One challenge in starting any beef farming enterprise is the availability of enough calves that have been weaned from milk. A farmer must make sure such a venture has the adequate supply of calves to start with. Calculate the cost of buying and raising calves versus the projected income to get estimates of the likely net income.