Dairy beef crosses have our attention

Many dairy farms have begun breeding a portion of their herd to beef bulls to produce calves for beef production. This allows dairy farms to better manage replacement heifer inventories and, in some cases, receive market premiums over straight-bred baby bull calves. Wisconsin data shows the number of inseminations of Holstein females to beef semen rapidly increased from 2% in 2016 to 23% in 2020. No doubt we are well beyond this today.  
As this practice has become more common, some dairy farms are exploring the practicality and profitability of retaining their dairy beef calves to market as feeder or fed cattle versus baby calves. Regardless of when these beef crosses are sold, there is a vested interest across the industry to create a finished product desired by packing plants and consumers.  
Observations from cattle feeders and meat packers indicate dairy beef animals can be extremely variable in health, growth, performance and carcass traits, which creates problems for feeders and packers. Wisconsin survey data indicate that many dairy farms select bulls solely on coat color, semen cost and calving ease, and do not consider bulls with traits that complement dairy cow traits to improve carcass qualities and feedlot performance of these calves.
When selecting a beef bull, of any breed, carefully consider the growth and carcass characteristics that bull will bring to the cross. Expected Progeny Differences is the genetic language for beef and represents the genetic potential of an animal as a parent. EPDs are an estimate of how genetically superior calves will perform compared to average or below-average EPD calves. Beef sire selection practices can improve to include feedlot performance and carcass traits, such as muscling with ribeye EPD, quality grade with marbling EPD and frame score.
Dr. Tara Felix from Penn State University suggests selecting bulls with superior muscling while also contributing to marbling to increase your chance of producing dairy beef calves that better fit packer preferences. Research by Dr. Felix and others at Penn State continue to look at which breed is most ideal for beef-on-dairy crosses. Today, there is no clear-cut winner, but Dr. Felix notes that we have tremendous potential to gather detailed data from large-scale dairy operations to better answer this question.  
The dairy industry understands the importance of efficiently growing and raising a healthy heifer calf and the subsequent impact on milk production. The same applies to newborn dairy beef calves heading to calf ranches. Calves that get sick early in life will grow slower throughout their lifetime and have a reduced quality grade when hung on the rail. Hence, we need to treat our dairy beef crosses with the same care and management strategies implemented for their dairy replacement counterparts.
Feeding 4 quarts of high-quality colostrum to the calf as soon as possible after birth is the most important thing you can do for calf health. It is especially important for dairy beef calves destined to leave the farm at a young age to receive colostrum. Calves are born with an immature immune system, which means they have little defense against disease. The timely ingestion of adequate amounts of high-quality colostrum allows the calf to acquire passive immunity from the dam. Passive immunity helps the calf fight disease during the first few months of life as the immune system develops.  
The goal of a dairy beef program is to produce calves that finish efficiently and uniformly with carcass traits similar to native beef cattle. Dairies that succeed at this will find a ready market for their calves. If measuring success of passive immunity through total protein levels in dairy beef calves, it may be valuable to share your protocol and history with the buyer of your calves to solidify this relationship.
Larger dairies can produce dairy beef calves in much greater numbers than the average beef herd, plus they can provide a year-round supply. Focusing on genetic selection will result in improved calf uniformity and performing good newborn calf care practices will improve success in the next phases of feeding. These actions can strengthen relationships with others in the supply chain, ultimately contributing to bottom-line success.    
Barry Visser is a nutritionist for Vita Plus.


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