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Beef bulls for crossbred performance: What Riverview LLP has learned over 10 years

Tamara Scully for Progressive Dairy Published on 01 July 2019
Crossbred calf

For 10 years now, the interdependent crossbred calf system put into place between Riverview Dairy and Wulf Cattle, home to Limousin genetic seedstock, “seems to be working,” spokesperson Lauren Osborn said during her presentation at the 2019 New York Beef Producers’ Association Annual Winter Conference.

The two business partners formally merged into one business – Riverview LLP – in 2012, “basically because of this crossbred calf.”

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Breeding dairy beef, whether Holstein or Jersey, was not economically rewarding, with poor efficiency and quality issues at the packer, so Riverview’s owners opted to try dairy-beef crosses. The solution to the problem of the Jersey bull calf, Osborn said, was found after the dairy had success using Wulf Cattle’s Limousin genetics to crossbreed both their Jersey and Holstein cows. The resulting high conception rates, ease of calving and high red meat yields were a winning combination for the dairy.

The crossbred calves, which are the product of this specific mating strategy, are known today as BeefBuilders, a trademarked brand. Dairy cows that aren’t going to be among the select group used to generate replacements for Riverview’s dairy herds are bred to produce these calves. The cows selected for the dairy herd are not the same as the cows selected to breed for the beef, Osborn emphasized.

“It all started at the dairy,” Osborn said. “We’re creating mating that is going to be custom-made for Jersey and Holstein cows. Consistency and the right kind of product for the market … all starts at the dairy.”

Riverview LLP – which includes Wulf Cattle, its beef division – currently milks dairy cows at 14 different sites spread out among Minnesota, South Dakota, Arizona and New Mexico, and that continues to grow. These cows are predominately Jersey or Jersey-Holstein crosses, with only about 15 percent purebred Holsteins. Combined, the dairies produce 40,000 calves each year as part of their branded beef-on-dairy mating program. Additionally, Riverview LLP operates cattle-feeding sites in four states and raises 40,000 head per year of Angus beef for Tyson’s Natural Beef label.

‘Breeding to Feeding’ genetics

The Limousin-based sire genetics upon which the dairy has built its signature crossbred calves is available to other dairies as well. Semen can be purchased through several large firms, including Select Sires, Genex Cooperative and Alta. Wulf Cattle’s Limousin sires – homozygous black and polled – have been selected via an extensive testing process to be part of the branded Breeding to Feeding genetics line.

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This ranch-created dairy genetics program results in a crossbred beef-on-dairy calf that is ready for the feedlot, with excellent growth and performance, and that has been selected for the combination of qualities important on a dairy farm the company says. The 75 to 100 new sires tested each year are intensively observed and scored on calving ease in a process that results in a 98 percent confidence rate in the sire genetics.

“Gestation length is important on a dairy. We have to get the cows pregnant, and we have to get them out alive,” Osborn said. Extensive testing of new sires each year means “no one is guaranteed to stay in the lineup,” and the genetics are continually improved to select only the best sires for the program. All sires are tested on both Jersey and Holstein cows, and have to pass the calving weight protocols on both breeds.

While selecting for reproductive factors is important, the end goal is to create a crossbred beef calf that “ultimately keeps the packer happy,” Osborn explained. To that end, carcass data is examined and tied back to the sire. “Validation is key. We want to know that these sires are going to work,” she said.

The mating program, when used selectively on dairy cows, results in the optimal crossbreed calf, Osborn stated. Sexed semen is not yet an option in the program due to cost constraints. But female calves go directly into the feedlot, as they’ve had no positive experience with raising these as replacement heifers for the dairy.

Getting the correct beef genetics for dairy cross breeds is an extremely important factor in the acceptability of dairy beef in the market, as packers have “notoriously bad attitudes toward crossbred calves,” Osborn said. To rectify that perception, the crossbred dairy beef industry is going to have to consistently show it can perform, producing beef that meets the parameters the packers desire. Osborn believes their calves can do just that, but dairy farmers have to do more than provide the right genetics.

Riverview raises their calves with as much care as they do their replacement heifers, and their life is similar to that of the dairy heifer until they enter the feedlot. Calves are raised in hutches until they reach 200 pounds, after which they are moved into run pens. Although the company does not share its proprietary feeding protocol, the resulting calves are never fed grass because that would not work with the program’s genetics to produce the end product the packers demand, Osborn said. These crosses finish at 18 and 24 months, “different than traditional beef.”

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Opportunities

Riverview LLP is seeking “dairy farms looking for a consistent market long term,” Osborn said. They are interested in purchasing calves produced by their genetic program from trusted dairies in select regions of the country. The risk of raising the calves would be assumed by Riverview and Wulf Cattle, while the dairy farmer reaps the benefit of using sire genetics well tested for conception, calving rate and calving ease. The program is not intended as a means for individual dairy farmers to sell a few of these calves on a casual basis; rather, the purpose is to breed and finish the highest-quality cross-breds, connecting supply and demand.

Crossbred bull

For dairy farmers looking to raise calves themselves from the Wulf Cattle program, Osborn’s best advice was, “Know your end market to get the value out of your genetics.” Know your calf-raising costs, and consider your space needs, both of which are important prior to opting to raise crossbred calves for beef, she added.

Osborn recommended dairy producers move beyond picking genetics from “a catalog of Angus bulls,” and instead focusing on the best complementary genetics for their dairy herd when choosing a crossbred beef-on-dairy program.

“We model everything for external dairies off of what our internal dairies do,” Osborn said of Riverview LLP’s comprehensive beef-on-dairy program, and the resulting calves. “The days of using inferior sires on your dairy cows? Those days are over.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: From birth until entering the feedlot, Riverview raises their crossbred calves the same way they raise replacement heifers. 

PHOTO 2: Riverview LLP’s strategic beef-on-dairy cross begins with either a Jersey, Holstein or Jersey-Holstein dairy cow and specially selected Limousin genetics from Wulf Cattle to create an end product desired by the packer. These crosses finish at 18 to 24 months old. Photo provided by Lauren Osborn.

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food system topics.

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