Admittedly, we were a little late to the beef-on-dairy party, but we’re here now.
    According to the most recent data I’ve seen, more than 80% of dairy farmers in the Midwest are using beef semen in their herds, and the uptick in use began back in 2017. We tried incorporating beef semen into our breeding plan about that time but didn’t continue due to very poor conception rates.
    But, as with many ideas that failed initially, we tried again, because we seriously needed to do something to right the size of our heifer herd. Even with drastically reducing our use of sexed semen, we still had way too many heifers for our replacement needs.
    This time around, we had success and now have over a year of experience with little black beefers. We started using Limousin semen but switched to Angus due to better calving ease.
    My first conclusion regarding beefers is that, without a doubt, they are born to suckle. From the very first bottle of colostrum, feeding these little guys is a treat. Both the beef-on-Holstein and beef-on-Jersey calves drink better. I noticed, too, that the insides of their mouths are considerably softer than those of dairy calves. Comparing beef-on-dairy and dairy calves makes for an interesting illustration of the power of selective breeding. Dairy breeds could definitely benefit from selection for newborn vigor.
    We also found out – the hard way – that beefers are born to run. They literally hit the ground ready to run. We usually collect dairy calves born on pasture several times a day. We now collect pasture-born beefers immediately after birth, unless we feel like running too.
    A secondary benefit of beef-on-dairy breeding was the corresponding switch we made to weekly bull calf pickup. We used to feed our dairy bull calves for two to three weeks before selling to add value. We now have a buyer who picks up beefers and dairy bull calves twice each week. There is the axiom, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” Well, I didn’t realize how much extra work we made for ourselves by feeding bull calves. But, we could also never stomach a $25 check for a healthy calf. Now we don’t have to choose between extra work and reasonable compensation.
    Beef-on-dairy semen use also allowed us to return to year-round calving. Many years ago – 12, I think – we adopted a no-new-calves policy for the coldest and hottest months of the year. That meant no calves born between Dec. 15 and Feb. 15 and again during July and August. This practice helped us avoid the newborn calf challenges that came with outdoor winter calving and the fresh cow challenges that came with summer heat.
    With those benefits, though, came a new set of challenges: quarterly calf-alanches. Before and after each breeding ban, we doubled our efforts to settle cows, which resulted in literal overruns of calves nine months later.
    We also encountered several seasons of unseasonable weather – like the hottest September on record and the coldest, snowiest November – which convinced us that trying to out-plan Mother Nature is next to impossible.
    Long story short, this past winter was the first in over a decade that we calved straight through. We learned last spring that beefers can handle a cold weather birth better than dairy calves. So nearly all of the cows who calved this winter were bred to beef semen.
    It’s interesting to think we’ve come full circle now with our calving schedule. But, it’s important to recognize that trying a new approach – sometimes more than once – is necessary for solving problems. We can and should continue to adapt our practices to meet our needs.
    One final thought. I drafted this column prior to the Holy Week blizzard that dropped literal feet of wet, heavy snow on beef ranches in North Dakota and Montana and then whipped that snow around with gale-force winds. Even the heartiest of beef calves – newborn or not – were challenged. My heart goes out to the ranchers who worked in those unholy conditions to protect their cows, calves and livelihoods.
    Sadie and her husband, Glen, milk 100 cows near Melrose, Minnesota. They have three children – Dan, 15, Monika, 12, and Daphne, 9. Sadie also writes a blog at www.dairygoodlife.com. She can be reached at sadiefrericks@gmail.com.