October 20, 2023
Of the roughly 25.5 million head of harvested beef cattle in the U.S., about 5 million of those have traditionally been Holsteins.
But beef-on-dairy crossbreds — the result of breeding beef semen to dairy cows — now take up most of the Holstein chunk, about 3.25 million head this year, said Dale Woerner, the Cargill endowed professor in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences at Texas Tech.
With overall beef numbers down because of drought and high feed prices, now is the perfect time for the dairy industry to cash in on what is a golden chance to build calf value and carve out a nice chunk of the overall beef production pie, Woerner told a group of World Dairy Expo attendees. But keeping this momentum going requires better management, from calf to feedlot.
“Total quality management is lacking in our industry,” he said. “Some do it very, very well. Some are managing these from the time they come out, getting colostrum to them quick and other things. Others are not.”
Woerner traces the growth of beef-on-dairy calves to a decision made in 2016 by Tyson, one of the country’s largest meat packers, to stop accepting Holstein steers into its establishments. As a result, Holstein bull prices collapsed to $20 a head.
That changed the game, he said, as dairy producers started buying more beef semen to increase the value of their calves. Beef-on-dairy crosses started replacing Holsteins in the marketplace. Through genetics and improvements in management, Woerner said these crossbreds now compete with conventional beef on average daily gain, dressing percentage, yield and quality.
“There is an opportunity today to make these crossbreds better, by choosing better genetics to start, better bulls, more conforming bulls, more complementary bulls, which means shorter-stature, wider-weight, heavier-muscle bulls fit better when you’re breeding to a very tall, very narrow dairy cow,” he said.
Health issues persist
Liver abscesses, in particular, have been a constant problem for beef-on-dairy crosses.
“This is an issue that is causing product losses, efficiency losses, dollar losses and, as a result, the beef industry is employing herd health discounts on all of these cattle because early on in this, on average, we were averaging 65% to 70% on average abscesses as a group,” Woerner said.
TALKING BEEF AT EXPO: Dale Woerner, the Cargill endowed professor in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences at Texas Tech, thinks now is the perfect time for the dairy industry to cash in on what is a golden chance to build calf value and carve out a chunk of the overall beef production pie. But keeping this momentum going requires better management, from calf to feedlot.
Tom Earleywine, director of nutritional services for Land O’Lakes animal health solutions, said liver abscesses develop because of an unhealthy gut. An organism, usually some sort of bacteria, gets out of the gut and into the liver, which is the body’s filter.
While the liver itself is only worth $5 to $10 a head, Woerner said it devalues these crossbreds because of the possibility that an abscess will spread to other parts of the body. About 20% of liver abscesses become severe, he said, meaning that they spread to other more valuable parts of the animal carcass.
Once these animals reach the plant line, losses can add up quickly because a carcass with a liver abscess requires heavy trimming.
“It is generally accepted that the cost of production per minute of a plant is generally between $1,700 and $2,000 a minute, so every time we stop a plant’s production, we’re costing $1,700, $2,000 a minute, which essentially subtracts that animal out of the plant in terms of value. So, it’s like the animal didn’t even exist,” Woerner said.
Managing for better health
Feeding more colostrum early can set the stage for a healthier animal later, Woerner said.
Unhealthy eating, like when an animal overeats or eats irregularly, can predispose an animal to a liver abscess.
Earleywine said the dairy industry got a bad name with its crossbreds early on because the perception was that dairy producers weren’t getting enough colostrum to their calves. These calves also are weaned at 6 to 8 weeks of age, in comparison to a beef calf that weans at 5 to 6 months old.
“Now you have to change your thinking in terms of management and many other things to develop the gut and immune response, and develop these animals in a proper way,” he said.
Earleywine, who’s been looking at beef-on-dairy crossbreeds for the past five years, said these animals have gotten good at putting protein and fat into the carcass, a result of having beef genetics. Feeding these calves more protein early, such as 3 quarts of 27% protein milk replacer twice a day, will pay off later in a better-looking carcass, but can also improve health.
“We’re finding that makes for better development of the gut, so those calves are better able to, even if you can’t wean them at 4 to 5 months of age, if you wean them at 2.5 months of age, they do really well, and are better able to respond to challenges just by building a better, more resilient calf,” he said.
Managing animals through transitions is also key.
“That’s one of the differences between a native beef animal that may go from cow to maybe a grower and then a feedlot, and sometimes cow right to a feedlot, whereas these calves often go from a dairy to a calf operation that raises calves, to maybe sometimes an intermediary grower, and then to a feedlot,” Earleywine said. “Well, not only do you have all those changes, all those feed changes and housing changes, but you also have transportation between, and every time you transport an animal, we know they tend to shed a tremendous amount of bacteria. This is an industry challenge. It requires a different mindset of how we raise these animals, starting from Day 1.”
Keeping them valuable
Over the past 20 or 30 years, the typical purebred bull calf has averaged about $50 a head, Earleywine said. Beef-on-dairy crosses are worth upward of $400 to $600 a head, and sometimes higher, the day they are born.
Managing better-quality calves should be an industrywide goal, he said, starting with dairy producers who should consider keeping their calves longer.
“Today, I understand, they’re going to send them because they can get a lot of money for them right from Day 1. But in the long run, our industry, if we want to keep that market, we’re going to need to provide that grower and that feedlot the best animal possible,” Earleywine said.
Woerner said now is the time to fix issues with these crossbreds as conventionally raised beef will return.
“When the conventional beef numbers return, because they will — eventually it will rain, eventually we will rebuild our cattle herd, maybe it will take as long as 2027, 2028 — but they’ll come back,” he said. “When they come back if this problem is persistent, then general managers of beef processing plants and beef packers, as a whole, will push these to the curb and stop paying for them. Otherwise, these cattle are a premium product.”
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