January 17, 2022 at 3:42 a.m.
“Finishing crossbreeds is another revenue stream for our farm,” said Dave Wise.
Wise farms with his wife, Jean, and their sons, Ethan and Jared, who represent the fifth generation at Foresight Farms. Ethan’s wife, Allie, a full-time agronomist for Corteva Agriscience/Pioneer, also adds value to the operation with her farming background and agronomy knowledge. The Wise family milks 925 cows and farms 2,800 acres near Decorah on the border between Minnesota and Iowa.
Like Foresight Farms, many dairies across the country have diversified into breeding a portion of their herd to beef. If choosing to raise the animals that result from these matings, one must ask, should crossbred calves be fed the same as their Holstein peers?
“Crossbred calves have different needs than Holstein calves,” said Dr. Tom Earleywine, director of nutritional services at Land O’Lakes Animal Milk Solutions. “Although there are similarities in how they’re grown, there are differences pre-weaning and huge differences post-weaning. You should go for gusto or best performance when feeding crossbreeds. You might even want to feed them more than a Holstein to get these animals through the feedlot sooner.”
Feeding a reasonable level of nutrition, and providing a proper environment, helps ensure the crossbred calf reaches its full potential. But there are myths connected to the raising of crossbred animals that impact potential success.
“One myth out there is that if I feed my crossbreeds too much, they’re going to get tall and big like a Holstein, but that is not true,” Earleywine said. “They’re never going to look like a Holstein because genetically these cattle are programmed to be a beef animal, and the composition of their gain is different. Beef take additional feed and put it to muscle, while Holsteins put it to frame growth.”
Another myth is that a crossbred calf can be fed the same as a Holstein steer.
“Crossbreeds are a different animal altogether,” Earleywine said. “They are more valuable and should not be treated the same as a dairy steer. Most people tend to underfeed calves in the first place, but if you feed a crossbreed like a Holstein, you might be disappointed. If you’re feeding Holsteins poorly, then beef will do poorly also even though they’re more resilient.”
All calves at Foresight Farms receive 10 quarts of milk per day – 4 quarts both morning and night and 2 quarts at noon. Holsteins receive a milk replacer containing 26% protein while crossbreds receive milk replacer with 22% protein. Both types of calves consume 2.8 pounds of dry matter, or 13.5% solids, per day from milk. The Wise family started feeding milk replacer to crossbreds twice a day but felt they had a better calf at the end of the wet period if it was fed three times a day.
“We had less trouble with scours and everything just went better feeding a higher plane of nutrition,” Wise said. “Even though it’s a terminal animal, the extra money you spend those first few weeks setting them on that plane of growth and production is well worth the extra step and cost.”
All calves also get water three times a day.
“Water is very important,” Wise said. “No matter what kind of calf it is, they need water.”
In a perfect world, Earleywine advises feeding calves at least 2.5 pounds of dry matter from milk replacer or whole milk containing at least 22% protein at a rate of 3 quarts three times a day, delivering about 12% solids – guidelines which Wise exceeds. Earleywine said the general recommendation is to feed 3 quarts twice a day, equaling 1.8 pounds of dry matter or 13.6% solids.
“If you want lean tissue growth, you have to feed more protein,” Earleywine said. “Crossbreeds tend to be more feed efficient than dairy animals and can put on a lot of weight. But if you take away some of that energy, they do not do as well. The more energy you provide in dry matter, the more they’re going to grow. However, the more energy you feed, the more protein they need in order to allow for proper muscle growth.”
Each farm must assess its goals and feed accordingly. Is the goal to get the crossbred calf to 300 pounds before selling? Or, is it to produce the best feedlot animal possible?
“Crossbreds tolerate deficiencies better than Holsteins, but they still need a fair amount of energy as it gets colder in order to reach 300 pounds,” Earleywine said. “Two or 3 quarts twice a day is borderline nutrition when it’s cold. At Land O’Lakes and Purina, we saw as much as 44 more days to get to 300 pounds when feeding a low plane of nutrition. Instead, feed three times a day or 4 quarts twice a day once the animal reaches (1) week old.”
Calves start on grain by day 4 or 5 at Foresight Farms and receive a 22% protein starter. Once the crossbred calves start eating, they are switched to an 18% bulk mix starter.
“It’s a little less expensive than a bag feed, and they seem to do well on it,” Wise said.
The Wise family raises all calves outdoors in individual hutches.
“It’s a little challenging at times, but we have very few problems with respiratory issues,” Wise said.
Calves are kept well bedded and wear jackets.
“Jackets are a must,” Wise said. “We thought we might get by without putting jackets on the crossbreeds, but we saw a significant difference when we started using jackets on them as well. They’re growing better and healthier.”
The average daily gain on their crossbred calves is 2.5 pounds. Weaning starts by day 50, and the goal is to have calves weaned completely by day 63.
“If we have a smaller Holstein or a set of twins, we’ll keep them on milk about one week longer to give them an extra boost and chance to catch up,” Wise said. “But we don’t do that with crossbreeds. They’re weaned by days not size.”
Pre-weaning, Earleywine encourages feeding crossbred calves the highest quality, highest protein grain in the range of 20%-22% protein. After 12 weeks of age, more economical options can be offered.
“The last thing you want to do with a nice crossbred is not give it the groceries it needs,” Earleywine said. “Feeding crossbreeds well is an investment in the future.”
Highly palatable feed is a must to support the crossbred calf’s appetite. Earleywine cautions about introducing wet forages like corn silage and haylage too soon.
“This feed is bulky relative to its nutrient content because of the moisture,” Earleywine said. “Wait to feed it to crossbreeds until 5 to 6 months of age minimum.”
In addition to proper nutrition, Wise stressed the importance of picking the right bull in a crossbreeding program.
“You need the right bull with the right genetics, especially when you’re finishing them out,” he said. “When we first started crossbreeding, we were using eight or 10 bulls. Now, we’re down to just two and are seeing a real consistent product at the end. It’s made quite a difference having the right bull. You can’t pick the cheapest ones.”
Wise sells crossbreds on grade yield and keeps track of which bull is coming back with better grades.
“We get carcass printouts and are getting good returns on each animal,” he said. “They’re grading very well.”
Recognizing the value a crossbred calf adds to the herd, Wise is committed to breeding and growing animals that deliver optimum performance and profitability.
“There are a lot of similarities between Holsteins and crossbreeds, but there’s definitely a difference in the aggressiveness of the crossbred animal and how vigorous they are,” Wise said. “We keep learning more as we go and continue fine-tuning their diets to get the best results.”
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