How many dairy steers are born in the United States every year?
    None.
    This is a trick question. You may have heard it used during a round-robin youth show Q&A with the participants.
    How many purebred dairy bull calves are born in the United States every year? A lot fewer than there used to be. The reason why is the emphasis on beef-on-dairy crossbreds to market for beef. We have been using beef semen in our herd for about three years, and after starting cautiously, we have stepped up the pace in the past several months.
    I checked our farm’s DHIA inventory records for May of 2019, 2020 and 2021. From two years ago, our heifer inventory has decreased by 30%. It is noticeable in our calf barn, our heifer pens and in the trailer loads we send to and have returned from our heifer raiser’s farm.
    On our operation, we have found some pluses of having fewer replacements. We are not presently expanding our herd as our facilities are maxed out. So that means we no longer have a surplus of replacement heifers to sell when we choose the heifers we wish to freshen and keep in our closed herd.
    Selling the excess heifers had been a fairly positive money-maker for our dairy in years past. In recent times, however, selling replacements after the time, labor and dollars invested in them has not been a plus for our farm. The numbers show a loss, not even counting in full for our own labor costs. Having too many animals in our facilities also isn’t good for their health and well-being in times of weather (such as the awful hot and dry spell we are going through right now) or other stresses.
    Another plus, in my strictly selfish view, has been a reduced number of baby calves to raise in our 33-pen calf barn. Rather than having a full barn almost every day of the year, I now have the luxury of getting pens cleaned, scrubbed, sanitized and the window of opportunity to let them sit empty for a few days or weeks. I don’t like to use the row of pens in the center of the calf barn in the summer months, so having fewer calves to keep in the barn until 12 weeks or older allows me to let this row sit empty or to use them for bulls I will sell soon.
    Marketing the cross-bred bulls has been a fun and interesting experience for me. At first, I wondered how to approach the topic of the crossbred bulls and heifers with my regular buyers, who were accustomed to Holstein bull calves, to raise on their farms to market weight. I have a handful of regular buyers. One buyer prefers to buy mostly Holstein bulls, because that is the animal most of his meat customers have grown used to over the years. Another buyer prefers the crossbred calves, because he can move them to market sooner in groups of all-black cattle and generally receive a better price while getting a higher feed efficiency. Recent market analysis by Dan Schaefer, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, showed a $75 premium per hundredweight for a crossbred beef-on-dairy bull calf.
    After help from consultants in analyzing genomic testing results from our heifers, we are able to decide which of those to breed to sexed semen. In this way, we can more quickly make improvements in profitable characteristics in the both milk components and physical attributes that contribute to health and productivity.
    These ideas are not new or rare in U.S. dairy herds, of course. But, I have been thinking about them lately, because they seem to have a big impact as we look for ways to curtail some of our work load, reduce our costs of raising replacements or find ways to make profit besides a high component, high volume of milk that we sell as a commodity without a lot of options to seek a higher price.
    The crossbred beef seems to have a place, and I learned a lot more about it from watching a webinar where Schaefer discussed the difference in growth and carcass characteristics of crossbred cattle, leading to pricing variability. Schaefer concluded “that while the finishing program for crossbreds is predictable, challenges for the beef-on-dairy system reside in genetic selection of beef sires for these matings.”
    My take-aways from Schaefer’s presentation were that my calf buyers will continue to place a high priority on knowing I’ve done a good job with colostrum feeding. We should also continue to use genetics yielding specific traits for cattle that our buyers can market for a premium depending on their chosen market. Marketing the beef-on-dairy calves is most profitable when they are very young or by selling them as finished cattle. In light of those choices, I am hoping to raise them well to 7-14 days and move them out for others to benefit from.
    Jean dairy farms with her husband, Rolf, and brother-in-law, Mike, and children Emily, Matthias and Leif. They farm near St. Peter, Minnesota, in Norseland, where she is still trying to fit in with the Norwegians and Swedes. They milk 200 cows and farm 650 acres. She can be reached at jeanannexstad@gmail.com.