BHC Newsletter Spring FINAL

FEATURE ARTICLE First results from the National Contract Heifer Rearing Project

John Mee 1 and Marie-Claire McCarthy 1,2 and Luke O’Grady 2 1 Teagasc, Moorepark Research Centre; 2 University College Dublin

T eagasc have completed the first year of a four-year national research project on contract rearing (CR) in Ireland. This project is focusing on the animal health, productivity and fertility aspects of contract rearing. The research team are working with three groups of farmers; contract rearers (beef, dairy, other farmers) who rear the heifers, dairy farmers who send heifers for rearing, and dairy farmers who rear their own heifers at home. Contract rearing involves the movement of dairy replacement heifers from their source farm to another farm to be reared for a defined period and set fee. In the Teagasc National Farm Survey (2016), 5% of farmers identified themselves as involved in CR. With rapid expansion of Ireland’s dairy herd, the practice is expected to become much more widely adopted in the coming years. Currently, demand for heifer rearing services appears to be exceeding supply of contract rearers. By utilising existing farm infrastructure, CR presents the opportunity for rearers to increase farm profitability without major capital investment. Depending on the type of CR arrangement in place, rearers can benefit from regular monthly income resulting in improved cash flow. For dairy farmers sending heifers away for rearing, accelerated growth of the herd can be achieved by overcoming limitations presented by land and labour shortage on the milking platform. However, there are potential drawbacks. A major animal health issue with CR is the movement of animals between farms. Depending on the scale of the CR operation, heifers from multiple farms may be housed or grazed together. In addition, heifers may be mixed with existing stock on the farm of the contract rearer. This represents a potential risk for spread of disease. To date there is an absence of research on CR in Ireland nationally. With this in mind, in 2018 a consortium of national and international organisations (Teagasc, UCD, AHI, DAFM, ICBF and the University of Ghent) commenced a collaborative research project focused on animal health and CR. The study aims to: 1. Characterise the type of CR arrangements in Ireland, 2. establish the relationship between biosecurity practices on these farms and the health, fertility and productivity of heifers, 3. Compare the health, fertility and productivity of heifers that are contract-reared with those that are reared at home. The study will follow heifers from birth to first lactation by visiting each farm four times over the first three years of the project (in spring and autumn). The first visit in spring 2018 was to the heifer source farm before the heifers were moved to the contract rearer and also to control farms rearing their own heifers. The remaining visits are taking place on the farm of the contract rearer and the control dairy farms. The spring 2019 visits (third visit) are currently being conducted on farms around the country.



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