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How to add value to dairy-beef cross calves

Grant Crawford for Progressive Dairy Published on 02 September 2020

A near-perfect storm has created an opportunity to add value to dairy calves not destined for the milking string. While dairy herd numbers remain fairly steady, improved milk production efficiencies have reduced the pace of replacement animals entering the herd.

Meanwhile, a dramatic decline in veal consumption has resulted in demand for dairy-beef cross cattle harvested for beef.

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This opportunity has seen growing pains. Some packers no longer accept market-ready purebred Holstein steers because their frames are too large for their systems. As dairies move forward with plans to designate animals for beef production, it’s important to remember the lessons learned in the past and make a goal to provide a desirable animal to feedlots and packers.

The supply of dairy-beef cross market-ready animals is expected to more than double the next three to five years. As more dairies take advantage of this value-added proposition, it’s important to keep in mind this will require some changes to management practices.

Setting priorities

When developing a crossbreeding program, set goals for your operation and take into account the priorities of the feedlot and packer. Dairies should use beef sires that have good calving ease and high fertility as well as meet the needs of feedlots and, ultimately, the packer.

It’s important to know what kind of calves buyers desire. Does your calf buyer provide a premium for black calves with a “beef-like” appearance? If that’s the case, then your dairy will benefit most from considering sires with additional traits that improve carcass quality.

Are you in a situation or considering raising dairy-beef cross calves past weaning? If so, carcass and growth traits should be considered in order to capture premiums when those animals are sold. This requires you to adopt a “feedlot mentality.”

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Regardless of how long calves are held on your dairy, buyers will tell you documented calf health is important, as this sets the stage for efficient growth for a desirable, high-grading carcass.

A common goal for all sectors is profitability. Dairy-beef cross calves are usually more valuable than purebred dairy calves. But if you use the wrong crossbred genetics, buyers won’t return. Keep in mind, you’re selecting the bottom portion of your herd (animals that aren’t valuable to the milking herd) and crossing them with beef genetics.

This applies to bull calves as well as heifers. A Holstein heifer will not perform well in the feedlot, but dairy-beef cross heifers can be a desirable feedlot animal. Do your research. Several genetics organizations have programs to match desirable genetics from the beef side to dairy animals.

One important consideration dairies should keep in mind when developing a crossbreeding program is carcass quality. The packing plant wants high-grading, high-yielding carcasses, and the feedlot wants an animal that grows quickly and efficiently. When done correctly, quality beef genetics improve growth and carcass quality.

Through a crossbreeding program, dairies have the opportunity to build on positive Holstein attributes. But one of the reasons dairies see discounts on purebred carcasses (besides frame size) is a smaller, narrower ribeye. By crossing with quality beef genetics, dairies can improve this carcass characteristic and potentially realize carcass quality premiums.

Build immunity

If your dairy-beef cross calves are headed to a feedlot, providing the buyer with a certified history of health management procedures gives you an advantage. Feedlots realize dairy calves are immediately pulled off the cow, which raises the risk of illnesses caused by stress compared with beef calves that spend months with their dams.

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Providing adequate colostrum and a clean environment help get dairy-beef cross calves off to a positive start. Because it’s difficult to know how much colostrum a calf receives, consult your veterinarian for a tailored intranasal vaccination recommendation.

Implants add value

Growth-promoting implants provide another boost for dairy-beef cross calves. Always consult your veterinarian or nutritionist to find the solution that works best for your farm.

A recent study followed 1,248 41-kilogram Holstein calves through finishing at approximately 500 days old. Some calves received Ralgro (zeranol) implants at birth and at 92 days, some just one implant at either day zero or day 92, while control calves received no implants. All calves were castrated at 35 days old, were provided the same access to water and starter, and received the same series of implants after entering the feedlot at 169 days.

The implanted calves gained 5.5% faster than control calves at 92 days and held that advantage up to around 365 days. This evidence suggests young calves with dairy genetics can receive a competitive advantage from growth implants before they enter the feedlot. Multiple studies in beef steers have shown advantages for cattle implanted as calves through growing and finishing stages.

Be willing to adjust

Dairies making the commitment to add value to their farm by crossing with quality beef genetics must be willing to make adjustments along the way. Develop a relationship with your cattle buyer and ask for input to determine where there is room for improvement. If you need to make adjustments to your breeding, feeding, health and implant protocols, the more input and data you receive from buyers, the more value you can add to your dairy.  end mark

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Grant Crawford
  • Grant Crawford

  • Technical Services Manager
  • Merck Animal Health

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