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Beef-on-dairy done right: How to make the crossbred calf the market desires

Progressive Dairyman Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 29 June 2018
Calves in pens

More and more dairies are inseminating a portion of the herd with beef semen, but the decision to do so should not be made lightly. Truly adding value to these calves is about much more than changing the color of their hide.

Semen companies like ABS Global are seeing some of their most aggressive herds using as much as 50 percent beef semen. According to Tim Timmons, who manages the company’s strategic beef-on-dairy breeding program, it is an effective way for dairy owners to avoid intentionally making dairy bulls and unwanted replacement heifers.

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“While today, not every dairy producer uses this new way to fast-forward genetic progress, each week we see many new herds adjusting their genetic strategy,” Timmons says.

Furthermore, the concept is helping dairymen capture extra dollars in the bull calf market. A beefy-looking, black dairy calf is more attractive to some buyers than a purebred Holstein or Jersey.

The present moment, however, is a critical juncture that will make or break the long-term value of dairy-beef-cross calves. There is a powerful opportunity to provide an animal that performs well in the feedyard and produces a valuable carcass for the packer.

But there is also a risk of devaluing the market for dairy-beef-crossbred calves if they fail to thrive through the stages of feeding or if they lack desirable characteristics for processing efficiency and meat quality.

With the future of the market at stake, Tom Peters, a consulting nutritionist and partner in Wisconsin’s Central Sands Dairy, warns producers, “Don’t screw this up.”

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Take the time to understand semen selection and marketing channels along with how early calfhood impacts feedlot performance.

Selecting semen for beef-on-dairy breeding

The semen choice a dairyman makes today could change the trajectory of bull calf value for years to come. According to Peters, “We have one shot as a dairy industry at this. We have to use high-quality beef animals with proven carcasses.”

Selecting high-quality beef semen for use on Holstein females

While black hides are important, he warns, “They are not a savior.” Feedlots and packers need animals genetically prepared to grow efficiently and consistently, and to turn that growth into pounds of muscle, not frame.

“I see a lot of poor-quality Angus semen being used that produces nothing more than a dirty Holstein – a black-hided animal with a Holstein carcass,” Peters says. “We need to be arduous and careful on what we use for semen and sires, or we will only create a black-hided Holstein that won’t solve any problems.”

Peters has put the practice of selective breeding into play on Central Sands’ herd of predominantly Jersey cows. The dairy retains ownership of these cattle in order to track carcass traits. The profile of his bull of choice is a high-quality, homozygous-polled black Gelbvieh to achieve good birthweights, positive weaning weights and positive carcass finished weights.

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“The Gelbvieh has two incredible qualities: They are fairly self-regulating on birthweight and, even with a negative birthweight of 10 pounds, they have a positive finished-weight calf,” he adds. Combining those traits with the Jersey breed’s propensity for high-grading carcasses is hybrid vigor at its best.

Most of the resulting cattle grade Choice, with 13 percent grading Prime (compare that to 5 percent of Angus animals in the U.S.). In addition, 75 percent reach yield grades 1 and 2 when finished.

When breeding Holstein females to beef, Peters recommends placing selection emphasis on feed efficiency and terminal weight, targeting 1,400 pounds. “You want a positive finish weight and a static birthweight, and now we have a true chance of improving feed efficiency of the cross by 25 to 30 percent, so it’s an animal the feedyard wants.”

This creates a more pleasing product for the end user as well.

“The Holstein animal is desirable, with 65 percent grading Choice, so if you throw in high-quality Angus, the ribeye becomes more round and can be used in the restaurant industry,” he explains.

Adding value … beyond a black hide

Dr. Brandon Treichler says cattle buyers are looking for a “calf that looks more like a beef animal,” and choosing a beef-breed cross that results in a black-hided baby is a step in achieving this. But as soon as that calf hits the ground, what the dairy producer does next can significantly impact its value.

Treichler, a quality control veterinarian with Select Milk Producers, works with large dairy herds in western Texas and eastern New Mexico. He encourages dairymen to develop a relationship with their marketing channel, whether that be a calf ranch or feedlot.

creating a black-hided cross adds value to bull calves

“If you are just sending them to the sale barn, you may not have that opportunity – but if you know where they are going, you can develop a relationship of how you can both do better in this process,” Treichler says. “Where we’ve done that and reached out to those marketing channels, we’ve gotten good feedback.”

Treichler says adding value starts with a simple conversation. Discuss the following areas with the marketing channel to discover their preferences and uncover opportunities to add value while crossbred calves are still on the dairy:

  • Castrating
  • Dehorning
  • Tagging
  • Vaccinating
  • Implanting
  • Weaning
  • Desired weight

It comes down to preference. Some buyers may be willing to pay a bit more for the convenience of calves that have already been processed, and it doesn’t take the dairy long to perform these duties on a newborn.

Yet other buyers may prefer to delay castration to improve gains or administer their own identification and vaccination protocols. “We will never know if we don’t ask the questions,” Treichler says.

There is potential for a buyer to place additional value on thorough and accurate animal health records. “We know everything that happens to those calves,” Treichler adds, “and perhaps there is a market for that.”

Understanding the feedlot mindset

Feedlot management is all about efficiency, and that’s important for dairy producers to understand as they select bulls and set protocols for calves destined for the yard.

Ray Melander is a beef production specialist with Purina, working out of the Heartland Cooperative in central Wisconsin. His cattle-feeding customers focus on getting animals to market weight as quickly as possible.

“Ultimately, for the feedlot operator, profitable rate of gain is king,” he explains. “The sooner the cattle reach market weight, the sooner the next group of cattle can be started.” Feedlot profitability is greatly impacted by the number of “turns” annually through the facility.

The term “turn” is used when evaluating how long (in months) a group of cattle are on feed in the facility. Not every feedlot takes young calves and feeds them to terminal harvest. There are many people who like baby calves and will raise them to 300 to 400 pounds; then these calves are sold or moved to a “backgrounding” facility which grows the cattle to 800 to 1,000 pounds. The cattle are moved or sold again to a finishing facility, where they are fed until harvested.

In the feedlot, feed efficiency is rated by pounds of feed eaten to produce a pound of gain. For an 800-pound animal consuming 18 pounds of feed per day, it may take 6 pounds of food to produce a pound of gain.

However, if the animal was sick earlier in life, efficiency is reduced, and it may take 7.5 pounds of food to gain 1 pound of weight. Melander points out the half-pound really does matter (Figure 1).

Daily gain difference for steer that was healthy as a calf versus one treated for sickness as a calf

“Over a 30-day period, that’s 15 pounds lost with that animal,” Melander says. “Spread that over a lot of 100 steers; that’s 1,500 pounds of gain lost in the month. That’s equal to one 1,500-pound steer because of the loss of feed efficiency.”

Those numbers add up even more when applied across hundreds or even thousands of cattle in a feedyard. Melander adds, “This is why neonatal calf care is so important to the end user and how an animal goes through the feedyard.”

The secret to setting calves up for feedlot success

Regardless of who buys the calves or the point at which they change hands, newborn calf care is paramount in setting up an animal to perform well in the feedlot. “If a calf has the opportunity to be a high-quality steer in the feedyard, it begins in the first four hours of life,” Melander says. “If someone messes that up, that calf is compromised for the rest of its life.”

The first and most important step: feeding colostrum. Melander recommends feeding a gallon of high-quality colostrum at birth, or within four hours after birth, to establish the animal’s passive immunity. This provides a foundation for disease protection during the vulnerable early calfhood period. Failure of the calf to receive this immune system boost can severely decline its feedlot potential.

“If a calf has to be treated two or three times in its first three weeks, that calf should be euthanized,” Melander explains. “That’s how strong an impact colostrum has on how an animal performs in the feedlot.”

In addition to colostrum, Melander emphasizes iodine dip for navels, clean bottles and pails, a clean and dry environment, and feeding adequate high-quality milk or milk replacer at the second and subsequent feedings.

Treichler agrees. “Basically, anything good for a heifer calf is good for a bull calf,” he states. “We have to get people trained to treat all calves the same, and that takes effort.”

This attitude applies to nutrition beyond day one when crossbred calves are retained by the dairy. Ensure nutrient needs are met by offering adequate milk, grain and water. “You’ve really got to think about providing enough nutrients and energy to keep them growing,” Treichler says.

“A straight-up 20-20 milk replacer may not be enough to maximize growth for a bull calf. Consider that calves on pasture get whole milk.”

He adds, “It’s all about adding pounds to that calf.”

An additional 50 pounds of gain at the three-month mark can make a difference to the buyer. “If a feedyard is shopping for calves and can choose between a 250-pound calf at 12 weeks old and a 300-pound calf at 12 weeks old, that 300-pound calf will finish out faster because of the way it was cared for,” Melander says. “It will have a higher value in the feedyard and lesser yardage cost because it will be more efficient.”

The bigger picture

By understanding what the marketing channels desire, dairy producers can provide a crossbred calf genetically and physiologically positioned to gain and grow efficiently. “We need to think like a person marketing beef calves,” Treichler says. “These calves are a legitimate profit center. The dollars are there.”

However, he sees a much bigger picture beyond profitability. “It’s not about maximizing the dollar; it’s about finding a home for your calves,” Treichler states. “If we don’t have a home for bull calves, it’s a huge animal welfare issue down the road.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: Treat calves destined for the beef market with the same quality of care as a replacement heifer calf. “If a calf has the opportunity to be a high-quality steer in the feedyard, it begins in the first four hours of life,” says Ray Melander, a Purina beef production specialist. “If someone messes that up, that calf is compromised for the rest of its life.”

PHOTO 2: Selecting high-quality beef semen for use on Holstein females can improve gains by emphasizing traits like feed efficiency and positive finishing weights.

PHOTO 3: Creating a black-hided beef-dairy cross adds value to bull calves, but truly establishing a long-term premium on these cattle requires careful semen selection and setting calves up to thrive in the feedyard. Photos courtesy of ABS Global.

Peggy Coffeen
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