MADISON, Wis. – Breeding with sexed semen in commercial dairy herds first began in the early 2000s. At the time, there were only 1.2% of Holstein dairy cattle bred with the sexing technology, yet today, that practice accounts for more than 19% of breedings in Holstein dairy cattle, according to the University of Wisconsin.
    Coupled with that is the increased use of beef semen on dairy cattle in the last two years. Data collected by the university shows conventional beef semen now accounts for 20.5% of breedings in Holstein dairy cattle. It was nearly nonexistent five years ago.
    “Producers have really had to tighten up their business, economically,” Matt Akins said. “They’ve been looking at ways to cut down on cost. Heifer inventory has been a way to tighten it up, and sexed semen and beef are good tools for that.”
    Akins is a dairy specialist with the University of Wisconsin Extension, focusing on dairy replacement management.
     The use of these breeding practices can have substantial benefits for a farm by primarily controlling heifer inventory, subsequently increasing the value of calves and putting a greater focus on high production animals.
    However, incorporating this strategy into a youngstock management program is more complicated.
    For farmers considering these multiple breeding practices, they should first evaluate their current herd inventory to understand the number of replacement heifers needed to sustain the dairy operation.
    “You don’t want to be short, because dairy should be your main focus,” Akins said. “To know what percentage of your herd should be bred to sexed and beef semen, work with your reproductive consultant and area extension agent. It’s really going to be dependent on the farm’s management and look different across all herds.”
    Akins’ colleague developed an interactive heifer replacement program as part of the university’s dairy management support tools that allows farmers to provide data on their herd inventory, including heifers and cows in lactation. For each service number, farmers can modify the groups bred to conventional, sexed or beef semen.
    “This will give you an idea to know if you’ll produce enough heifers to replace cull cows,” Akins said. “It’ll give you the best scenario, economically, with current market prices.”
    Sexed semen should be used on the high-end genetic animals in the herd to produce the majority of the future herd, and then beef semen on those animals that do not meet a certain genetic or genomic threshold.  
    “That’s been a big change as of recently,” Akins said. “There is one herd I work with where they use sexed and beef semen very intensively because their replacement rate is as low as 25% to 30%. They can use dairy-beef crosses to increase the value and income of their calves.”
    If bred appropriately, the dairy-beef cross calves will provide a greater return than their pure dairy penmates.
    In the latest market reports recorded Oct. 23, beef feeder cattle settled at $135.18 per hundredweight, while dairy feeder cattle had an average price of $102.16 per cwt.
    “The (market value) difference between a Holstein bull and crossbred is not as high as it used to be, but it’s still significant,” Akins said. “That’s a major reason most farmers get into it. They get that extra income to the farm compared to pure dairy calf prices they might receive.”
    While some dairy farmers may choose to sell their calves within a week of birth, others may feed them out if they have the facilities and resources available.
    “There’s really a large range for how people are managing these crosses, and that depends on management and what the farm is able to do,” Akins said. “There’s been a good learning curve and people are starting to figure it out.”
    One of the greatest trials the dairy industry has had to overcome with this breeding tactic is adapting to the beef industry’s needs.
    As farmers make mating decisions that will ultimately better their dairy herd, they must also be conscientious of the beef market they are contributing to.
    “A big challenge was that farmers were using the cheapest beef semen they could get and not paying attention to the genetics of the bulls they were using,” Akins said. “That’s important. If you use beef semen, the goal can’t be to get a black calf.”
    In the beef industry, carcass value and weight, feed efficiency traits, ribeye area and yield grade are particularly important. For dairy, breed characteristics considered important include semen cost, sire conception rate, calving ease and hair coat color, said Akins.
    “There’s a lot of frustration on the beef side because dairy farmers are bringing in these animals that look black, but they don’t have the same frame and finish as a purebred beef animal,” he said. “Dairy farmers have to have a goal that those animals are going to a feedlot to be finished.”
    Likewise, farmers should raise these calves with the same care as they do for their replacement heifers.
    “Give them high quality colostrum, quality milk or replacer to gain and do well right away,” Akins said. “The last thing you want to do is send these calves to a grower that won’t do well. Growers won’t want to purchase from you again.”
    Whether a farmer is reevaluating their heifer management with existing breeding protocols or incorporating new ones, understanding how sexed and beef semen work together can aid a farm in meeting its goals.      
    “Farmers have to be constantly monitoring replacement inventories to make sure they have enough,” Akins said. “Look at your management. In the end, you don’t want to be short on your lactating herd so as to keep production at the optimal level.”