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Economics drive use of beef bulls on dairy cows
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Economics drive use of beef bulls on dairy cows

The decision to AI dairy cows with beef semen must include tangible economic benefits.

Every dairy will have its own reasons – but limiting the number of heifers that will enter the mature herd ultimately has to make sense to the operation’s bottom line.

A big push to use beef semen in dairy has gained popularity but was used by some dairies beginning as early as 2012 – and was a common practice in the past, too – especially for cows that had trouble settling.

In the right circumstances, black-hided crossbred calves are worth twice as much as the straight 4-5-day old Holstein bull calf.

Some dairy farmers have decided to consider using beef semen, at least in the short-term, if they have enough dairy heifers/cows available.

During a recent webinar hosted by Penn State Extension, dairy experts there noticed that breeding dairy with beef is gaining traction across the U.S. They shared their own thoughts on what farmers may be considering as they venture along this path.

“When we talk about breeding to beef, we’re essentially planning out two years in advance, right? We’re going to be pulling heifers out of the dairy enterprise and shifting them into a beef option. When we do that, we need to make sure that we’re planning ahead to know where our farm is going to be,” said Robert Goodling, Penn State Extension associate.

He listed several questions that dairy farmers may ask themselves when considering beef semen:

• What animals, including their genetic contributions, do we need for this herd?

• Where does our herd need to be?

• What are our goals?

• If there is a surplus of dairy calves, does it make sense to use beef semen?

• Where do you begin?

• Where would you use it?

• What sires are available to us, and what’s the right breed to go with?

Goodling said that the “cashflow mechanics” of the dairy operation ultimately need to direct the decision-making process.

“The big thing we’re going to be talking about today is that reproductive management, those cow totals, the number of cows milking, our herd dynamics,” he said. “That’s going to relate to our reproduction management program – more specifically our culling rate and our heifer program.”

Farmers will have to “crunch the numbers” when deciding whether or not to use beef semen. It will take an open mind to accurately look at the yearly average pregnancy rate, the actual calving intervals, the number of heifers that are tapped for the milk herd but are culled before first time freshening, and the average number of freshenings completed by each cow in the herd.

If the pipeline of dairy heifers is more than full, then it may make sense to “add a valve” from the beef semen point of view.

“We need to look at our farms and say, ‘What is the precent of freshenings each month, and what’s our cull rate by month? What has it been for the last year or two? Are they consistent? Are they in alignment or are they sporadic and variable?’ We might need to have more heifers in the pipeline to account for a month’s deviation,” Goodling said.

He pointed out that the average length of time a U.S. dairy cow spends in the milking herd is 2.5-2.6 years. That means on average, a dairy cow is culled when she is 5 years old.

Economically, the cow has to spend about 2 years in the herd before she starts to make a profit over her costs.

To evaluate a heifer’s lifetime profit, current values to raise a heifer are around $2,000, and assuming a “salvage” value of $700 for the cow she’s replacing, that heifer needs to cover $1,300 before making the farm a profit. Assuming average production of 22,500 pounds of milk per year, and a milk price of $17 per hundredweight, she would have a positive net profit by the end of her third lactation.

Adding just one more lactation, the cow would generate a profit of $1,200 vs. losing money on the first or second lactation.

“This is why we need to think about what we can do to keep cows around, and why it’s advantageous to maybe not be at such a high cull rate,” Goodling said. “What do we do if we figured out we have excess animals? We have some options, right?”

Who is your customer?

Many dairies traditionally relied on the milk check, with dairy heifers entering the milking line and dairy bull calves sold at a few days of age. Dairy animals make up about 20 percent of the beef supply and have always been an important component of the beef industry.

If there is a processing facility in the region that wants black-hided beef/dairy finished steers and heifers, then the dairy herd using beef semen could be in luck.

Dairy farmers need to decide when and where they want to sell their dairy/beef crosses – whether it’s as soon as they’ve had colostrum and can easily drink from a bucket or bottle, at weaning time, after backgrounding, as feeders or at finishing weights.

Based on these items, dairy farmers can begin to look at beef bull EPD’s (Expected Progeny Differences) to find semen that will offer traits that are needed to produce good beef cattle.

“Growth and muscle is really what’s needed on these animals – to be pushing these dairy-influenced animals more toward beef production, efficient growth, and good muscle size and shape that can be marketed to a consumer that’s already accustomed to those traditional beef characteristics,” said Andrew Sandeen, Extension educator at Penn State.

One of the most important traits a bull can bring is ribeye area. Dairy cattle can have flat/odd-shaped ribeyes that are harder to process and less desired by consumers. A beef bull with a good ribeye EPD could pull that dairy/beef cross ribeye into better conformation and size.

It is common to hear that dairy steers marble well, so adding good muscle size and shape can provide an attractive steak to the consumer.

Farmers will also need beef bulls that will produce beef crosses that have medium stature. A tall animal with a lot of bone growth may be needed for the dairy barn, but not for the processing facility. Height is not a desirable trait to put on Holstein/beef crosses, remarked Sandeen.

“If we want that customer to keep coming back and purchasing product from us, we need to produce a product they want,” Sandeen said. “We really need to be thinking about that customer and providing them with the best quality animal we can, so we can continue to capitalize on whatever benefits we might have from using beef-on-dairy genetics.”

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