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Beefing up your dairy herd

Progressive Dairy Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 19 December 2019

During the 2019 Vita Plus Dairy Summit, Vita Plus Dairy Specialist Randall Greenfield teamed up with his counterpart on the beef side, Chad Howlett, to tackle the topic of using beef semen to manage dairy heifer herd inventory, and the opportunities and challenges that come along with the resulting crossbred calves.

In more than 20 years in the field, Greenfield has observed the increases in dairy farm efficiency, as pregnancy rates continue to climb and calf mortality rates decrease. The result of these advancements is often herds having heifers beyond what they need for their own herd replacements. In some situations, such as gearing up for a herd expansion, the additional heifers are a benefit; however, in other cases, keeping more heifers than necessary can be a financial drain.

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The overabundance of replacements may create pressure for aggressively culling older cows in the herd, but Greenfield warned this can create a lost opportunity for more milk. With first-lactation animals producing 15% less than second-lactation cows, and a quarter less than their third-lactation herdmates, there’s milk left on the table when a more mature cow is culled to make room for a fresh heifer.

“It’s probably not the most profitable option to milk all those heifers,” Greenfield said.

The financial drain of extra heifers is compounded by the cost to raise a that female dairy calf from birth to freshening. University estimates range from $1,800 to as much as $2,500 per head to raise a heifer, which is far greater than the current market value for springers at $1,300 to $1,600.

“The real savings is in not raising those extra calves,” Greenfield noted. He outlined an example of a 500-cow dairy culling at 53% in order to make room for incoming replacements. Dropping the herd turnover rate to 35% cut the number of calves needed per month from 30 down to only 20, yielding an annual cost saving of around $230,000 each year. 

The decision to tighten up heifer inventory often goes hand-in-hand with the trend to breed Holstein cows to beef semen in order to create a crossbred calf. Over the past six or seven years, Howlett has seen more of these crosses, most often Holstein-Angus, entering into feedlots. These crossbreds usually outperform straight Holstein steers.

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“When you look at the crossbreds [compared to Holsteins], you certainly do get a bump in performance, not just from an average daily gain and feed conversion perspective, but also from a carcass perspective as well,” Howlett said. “You’re looking at about a nickel to 10 cents per pound of gain advantage.”

However, the packing industry is still not quite sure what to expect from these animals.

“The beef crossbred is a relatively unknown commodity,” Howlett said, noting that packers seek predictable carcass consistency of familiar breeds like Holstein and Angus based on the specific market segments they serve, whether that be retail, restaurant or food service. “We see some packers turning [beef-dairy crossbreds] away all together, or only paying Holstein price,” he added.

Ultimately, producing a quality dairy-beef cross calf comes down to the dairy producer. “We really have to produce something that’s not just a dairy commodity,” he said, cautioning against simply breeding for a “black-hided Holstein” with “5-dollar semen.” Selecting genetics for carcass merit and growth traits will be imperative in producing an end-product the packer values.

“I believe it’s a critical time in the industry for this type of animal,” Howlett said. “It could really make or break if this type of commodity will remain viable.”  end mark

Peggy Coffeen
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