Dairy beef

Dairy beef steers make up roughly twenty percent of the U.S. fed-cattle market and, with their relatively low purchase price, they can be an attractive option for finishing when corn prices are favorable. Dairy beef production can be segmented into phases, allowing producers to find a feeding program that matches their feed resources, availability of labor and facilities. Gaining an understanding of the physiological differences between dairy and beef steers, the phases of production, calf health and feeding protocols will optimize efficiency, performance and the potential for profit.

The differences between dairy and conventional beef breeds

Holstein cattle have less overall muscle and a larger internal organ mass than beef breeds, meaning that their energy maintenance requirements are relatively high. Due to their large frames and extended growth curve, they perform best when fed a high-energy diet throughout their entire lives, from weaning through finishing. Continuously feeding a high-grain ration increases the potential to grade choice and successfully meet energy demands for frame growth and maintenance – without incurring heavy-weight discounts. Additionally, proper feeding helps produce adequate marbling with minimal back fat at an acceptable weight and age for market. 

Consistency in dairy breeding and calf care is an advantage when feeding dairy beef. Holsteins have a narrow genetic base when compared to beef breeds, resulting in relatively consistent feed intakes and average daily gains. For the cattle feeder, this predictability means less variation in feed inventory, expenses and resource management among different groups. When Holstein steers receive adequate colostrum at birth and are properly managed, they are typically healthier during the receiving period because they have not gone through the compounded stresses of being weaned, comingled and transported to the feed yard.

Holsteins are more susceptible to cold, wet and muddy conditions than beef breeds, due to their shorter hair, thinner hides and less body condition. As such, to reduce cold stress, windbreaks and/or shelters should be provided for them during the winter and wet spring months. Bedding will also reduce the negative environmental impact on their health and performance. Straw, corn stalks or sawdust make excellent bedding materials; they readily absorb moisture and keep calves dry. 

Phases of dairy beef production

The pre-weaning stage – from birth until they reach 250 pounds – is both labor-intensive and critical for the calf’s future performance. Optimal calf health begins with high-quality colostrum; calves need two quarts within the first 2-4 hours of life and two more at 8-12 hours, before their ability to properly absorb colostrum ends. If colostrum quality is in question, providing a high-quality colostrum replacer is recommended. Hubbard Feeds offers OptiPrime Colostrum Replacer to support calf health during the first few months of life. Calves also need a high-quality milk replacer and should be encouraged to eat dry feed as quickly as possible to stimulate rumen development. Hubbard Feeds offers milk replacers and textured calf starters that support intake and growth.

At 200–400 pounds, weaned, lightweight feeder calves are very marketable, offering fast growth with efficient conversions. Calf performance in the feedlot peaks at around 500–700 pounds, coinciding with when they most readily fit into existing feedlot facilities. Feed intake continues to increase with age while feed efficiency declines, as the energy needed to maintain and fatten the calves grows. Feeding and management strategies need to target economic efficiencies for both light and heavy feedlot steers. The use ionophores in the diet and growth-promoting implants will yield the most beef per pound of feed consumed.   

Methods of feeding dairy steers

There are predominantly two methods to grow and finish dairy steers; continuous high-concentrate feeding and two-phase feeding programs. Continuous high-concentrate feeding consists of a 90:10 concentrate-to-roughage ratio, fed from 300-400 pounds through finishing. If consistent intakes are maintained, this strategy can result in good feed conversion. However, continuous feeding of high concentrate diets through the growing and finishing phases can cause the cattle to stall out, increase risk of digestive upset and cause fluctuations in intake if not properly managed. Including a source of low-quality roughage in a high-grain diet can help alleviate the risk of acidosis. The “Dairy Beef Supreme Program” from Hubbard Feeds consists of whole-shelled corn and pellets, with minimal roughage. This balanced program helps steers adapt to higher corn intakes in three phases: light calf grower, grower and finisher. When using a self-feeder, roughage should be fed separately from corn and pellets to maintain rumen health, reduce the incidence of acidosis and limit the severity of liver abscesses.

Two-phase feeding programs start with high forage diets or pasture from 300 to 700 pounds, and then move steers to a high-grain finishing diet. This feeding program offers less risk of acidosis while growing, as well as the potential for compensatory gain during the finishing phase. However, dairy beef calves grown on high-forage diets or pasture need more days on feed to finish and grade choice, risking heavy-carcass discounts. Due to its limited benefits and increased complexity, this feeding strategy is not recommended.

Feeding dairy beef steers is an opportunity for both beef feeders and dairy operations. Utilizing management strategies that consider the physiological differences among the breeds, along with steer age, and weight ranges, will support performance and reduce metabolic issues. Working with dairy producers or order buyers to facilitate proper health management early in life will help support calf health during growing and finishing. Predictable genetics, feed intake, and performance sets the foundation for a successful feeding program. Paying attention to calf comfort, health protocols and management practices are all that you need for a strong finish.