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Northeast offers emerging market for quality crossbred dairy beef

Tamara Scully for Progressive Dairy Published on 01 July 2019

The crossbred beef market doesn’t yet have a clear identity in the Northeast. Producers – both beef and dairy – who are early adapters are seeing some success in the markets, and the potential to develop a thriving crossbred beef industry in the region is high.

A panel at the New York Beef Producers’ Association annual winter conference tackled the intricacies of crossbred dairy beef in the Northeast. Nicole Tommell, Cornell Cooperative Extension agriculture business specialist; Dr. Dave Wilson, retired veterinarian; and Tim Timmons, ABS InFocus manager, discussed the emerging market and the opportunities for dairy farmers, who are a crucial component in the market’s ultimate success.

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“Holstein cross beef can be a quality product,” Timmons said, adding that now is the time for dairy producers to help change the perception of dairy beef by producing a consistent, high-quality crossbred beef-on-dairy calf.

Dairy’s role

“Dairy producers have to be sure they do everything right on their end during the first one through three days they have them,” Wilson said, emphasizing the importance of newborn calf care. “The first 20 minutes dictates how it will perform.”

Wilson has been raising crossbred dairy beef since 2011, typically black Angus dairy crosses. In his experience, most beef-on-dairy crosses finish out at about 800-pound carcass weight and are graded Prime.

“I don’t think packers are going to object to these cattle,” he said. Unlike Holstein beef, with 1,300-plus-pound carcasses and a different frame than traditional beef breeds, the crossbreeds can produce a smaller carcass, with a reduced hip height and expanded rib area, finishing out more like traditional beef.

Treating the crossbred calf with the same care and attention as dairy replacements is going to be critical in developing a high-quality product, Timmons said. Providing quality calf care to crossbred beef animals is something dairy farmers can readily do and can offer much more opportunity than Holstein bull calves.

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When dealing with dairy beef, “a full premium requires full premium calf care,” Timmons emphasized. “It’s absolutely mandatory there’s buy-in that this is the standard and not the exception.”

Due to space constraints, Wilson sees most dairy producers wanting to raise calves to around 300 pounds. But many will be best off selling the calves as a newborn.

“Dairies are geared toward the milking herd,” Wilson said. “Take good care during the first 24 hours and sell them.”

Tommell agreed that most dairy producers can capitalize on the value of high-quality crossbred calves, advising dairy farmers to “capture the dollars at the front end” by selling them young and letting others raise them to market weight.

Timmons added, “Selling a newborn calf after 48 to 72 hours with excellent calf management is a normal approach.”

If dairy farmers do opt to retain calves and raise them longer, Timmons said the primary considerations – aside from the economics – will be the space, time and labor needed to produce a high-quality beef animal. Retaining ownership until a feeder weight of 350 to 500 pounds, or about 160 days, and connecting with the local feeder industry is an option for those dairy farmers with the capacity to diversify.

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Selecting genetics

Even before that calf is born, the dairy farmer has a role to play, selecting the best genetics for the beef-on-dairy crosses. Wilson recommends dairy farmers breed their mediocre cows, using beef for their last service.

“You want to be sure the bull you use has the characteristic traits of beef cattle,” Wilson said. “Use the right type of bull.”

Timmons emphasized the necessity of using beef genetics proven to work on dairy cows. Branded calves are in demand from feedlots and other buyers who realize calves sired from genetics programs specifically designed for beef-on-dairy crosses produce beef superior to that of generic black dairy calves.

“There must be improved genetic performance that will prove to the supply chain this is not another dairy commodity product,” he said.

Marketing options

Wilson said crossbred calves have the potential to enter several market streams, whether going directly into the feedlot or to backgrounders who will raise them on grass. Along with a large dairy industry and the ability to produce quality crossbred calves, the region’s grazing lands would allow for the development of a true Northeast beef model, complete with the quality needed at the packers.

Along with Mike Baker of Cornell University, he’s been running trials to see “what these calves out of New York dairies can do on New York grass.”

Tommell advocates for feeding no grass, however, and relying on a calf-fed program with high-grain rations from day one. This regimen focuses on the most average daily gain in the least amount of time and meeting quality commodity beef standards.

“Not every calf has to be shipped and raised in a Midwest feedlot,” Timmons said. “These calves should be raised like beef cattle. Know your market. The East Coast is looking for storied beef. The East has some harvest options that will welcome high-yielding cattle that meet their quality criteria.”

Through high-quality crossbred calves, dairy farmers in New York and across the Northeast have the immediate opportunity to capture added value from their dairy herds.

“It’s not a silver bullet; it’s just a management tool,” Wilson advised, and should be used to improve the dairy herd while offering a diverse income stream. “Breed your bottom cows to beef. Not every Holstein has to have a Holstein calf.” end mark

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

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