Dairy beef

Creating an industry for crossbred dairy beef cattle is a work in progress, and Grant Crawford said the timing to become involved is perfect.

Crawford, technical services manager for Merck Animal Health, made his comments during the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association virtual conference April 8.

“It will be interesting to see how this develops,” he said.

In 2019, about 1.4 to 1.8 million dairy-beef crossbreds were for harvested beef.

“It is estimated that 4 million will be harvested in the next three to five years, maybe more,” Crawford said.

He drew attention to a 2018 quote from Tom Peters, an Illinois nutrition and management specialist: “We have one shot as a dairy industry at this. We have to use high-quality beef animals with proven carcasses. Don’t screw this up,” Peters said.

Making it work

To take advantage of the dairy-beef crossbred market, the successful cross will have acceptable ribeye shape, a 900-lb. carcass, grade in the upper two-thirds of Choice, provide a good yield and have no other discounts, Crawford said.

Dairy producers, feedlot operators and packers have different priorities in choosing the right animals. Dairy farmers prioritize calving ease, while feedlots prioritize health, growth and efficiency. Packers’ priorities are quality and yield grade, size, predictability and low contaminations. All three aim for profitability, Crawford said.

One of the challenges is that dairy breeds don’t perform as well as beef breeds in regard to rate of gain and efficiency. A Jersey cow will have an average rate of daily gain of 2.5 pounds and a Holstein will average 2.7 to 2.9 lbs., compared to a crossbred beef calf at 3.2 to 3.4 pounds.

Holsteins also tend to be more sensitive to a number of issues, including weather, Crawford said.

Health is an issue that leads to discounts for Holsteins at the packer. Dairy cows are likely to have abscesses, largely due to early grain feeding and extended days on feed. That costs the packer money. Also, Holstein carcasses can be too big for the frames in packing plants. If the Holstein carcass drags on the table or floor, it has to be discarded.

Another reason dairy carcasses are discounted is the narrow shape of the ribeye. Improving that component can make the dairy-beef crossbreed more desirable to packers. The current discount is $3.60/cwt., which amounts to about $31 per head based on a 900-lb. carcass.

Crossbreeding to avoid this discount can provide a huge opportunity to add value, Crawford said.

Revising genetics, management

Lately, there has been more talk about Holstein cows as recipients for beef embryos. They could produce a higher-value beef calf. The cost could be about $60 per transfer, including embryo service costs.

“When dairy farmers are thinking of what to do with a lower genetic dairy cows, this could be an alternative,” he said.

A dairy calf’s health is still a barrier. There needs to be focus on colostrum, cattle comfort, ventilation and illness prevention. Hoof problems also seem to be a growing issue with Holstein cattle which doesn’t disappear with crossbreeding, he said.

As for growth, dairy crossbred producers could benefit from using implants, beta-agonists and MGA for heifers, Crawford said.

He encouraged those interested in dairy-beef crossbreds to watch for market signals and use good genetics. and suggested retaining ownership, partnering with a feedlot or participating in buy-back programs.

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.