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Feeding and managing Holstein steers

Daniel M. Schaefer for Progressive Dairyman Published on 26 September 2017

Dairy steers are an important source of beef production in the U.S. Since Holstein is the dominant dairy breed, emphasis is placed on finishing Holstein steers. “Dairy beef” refers to any dairy herd progeny developed to be ruminating cattle and harvested at an age that qualifies them for the USDA Prime, Choice or Select quality grades. Beef cattle breeds are referred to as “native” breeds.

Significance of dairy beef production

Finished dairy steers and heifers account for 16.2 percent of federally inspected steer and heifer beef production. Since Holsteins constitute 86 percent of the dairy cow population, Holstein steers and the few finished Holstein heifers are 13.9 percent of the fed steer and heifer supply.



The marbling within Holstein beef can be extensive. It’s estimated Holstein beef accounted for 33 percent of Prime beef tonnage in 2015.

Well-finished Holstein steers

The goal in finishing Holstein steers is to produce carcasses weighing 850 to 950 pounds that qualify for USDA quality grades Choice or Prime. Accomplishing this goal requires acknowledgement Holsteins have a large skeletal growth potential. Holstein cows produce steer progeny that have large frame scores.

Consequently, these large-frame steers are not likely to be finished until they weigh at least 1,400 pounds. Steers with a bodyweight of 1,640 pounds and a dressing percentage of 61 percent would yield a carcass of 1,000 pounds. Carcass weights in excess of 1,000 pounds incur carcass price discounts.

The ideal live weight finished Holstein steers should achieve with 28 percent body fat is 1,400 to 1,550 pounds. This coincides with the USDA Choice quality grade. This endpoint is achieved only when a high-energy finishing diet, containing at least 0.62 Mcal net energy for gain per pound of dry matter, is fed from 770 pounds bodyweight to slaughter weight.

Two steers were photographed to provide visual aid for readers. The steer in Figure 1 displays uniform fat coverage over the ribs, brisket fullness and modest fat pones on both sides of the tailhead.


Uniform fat coverage

These are characteristics of a body condition score of 7, coinciding with the fat content of carcasses that qualify for the USDA Choice quality grade. A similarly finished Holstein steer is shown in Figure 2).

finished Holstein steer

This steer’s carcass measurements indicate his carcass was average Choice and yield grade 3.

Pre-weaned bull calf management

Bull calf management through weaning should be no different than the management methods applied to heifer calves. Unfortunately, bull calves often do not receive adequate colostrum. Long-term studies have not been conducted to specifically quantify the effects of no or insufficient colostrum on steer health or growth. However, such insufficiency is reported to have similar long-term negative consequences for dairy heifer calves. Castrate prior to or soon after weaning.

The procedure should be done carefully. Castration by means of surgical removal of two testes is recommended. Alternatively, application of an elastrator band with two testes in the scrotum is effective. Holstein steers have a reputation for having a greater incidence of incomplete castration, resulting in stags. Do not attempt to castrate a bull until two testes can be palpated within the scrotum.


Post-weaned feeding strategies

The preferred method for raising and finishing Holstein steers is to wean them onto a high-concentrate starter diet followed by sustained feeding of a high-energy diet until the desired finished weight is achieved. This method results in finished Holstein steers commonly referred to as “calf-fed” cattle.

Advantages of this method are minimized yardage and interest expense on calf purchase cost, growth rate and gain efficiency are expressed to full genetic potential, and a high dressed yield of Choice or Prime at 1,400 to 1,450 pounds of bodyweight.

Assume the starter phase spans weaning until 330 pounds of bodyweight. Thereafter, the grower phase spans 330 to 770 pounds followed by a finisher phase from 770 to 1,450 pounds. University of Minnesota research indicated long forage in the starter diet was presumably beneficial to rumen development and had a carryover benefit for growth rate until harvest.

Feed a starter phase diet of 0.56 to 0.60 Mcal net energy for gain per pound of dry matter followed by a grower phase diet of 0.56 to 0.62 Mcal net energy for gain per pound of dry matter and then a finisher phase diet of at least 0.62 up to 0.65 Mcal net energy for gain per pound of dry matter. The finisher diet may be fed during the grower phase. Grazing should only be done during the grower phase.

Pens must be fed a diet with consistent composition day-to-day, at a consistent time of day, with a consistent manner of diet distribution and allowing equal access to the diet for all cattle in the pen. The feedbunk for each pen should be viewed at a consistent time of day. Based on this bunk reading, an amount of diet should be offered that will be eaten by the pen of cattle within the succeeding 24 hours, with only crumbs of diet remaining.

Additional management consideration

Use of anabolic implants in Holstein steers yields a high return on investment. However, the starting weight, diet energy density and implant program must receive forethought to avoid overweight or under-finished steers. The attributes and deficiencies of Holstein steers are many and are shown in Table 1.  end mark

Comparisons between Holstein steers

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Daniel M. Schaefer
  • Daniel M. Schaefer

  • Department of Animal Sciences
  • University of Wisconsin – Madison
  • Email Daniel M. Schaefer