Raising beef cross calves can boost your farm's profitability and free up space in your barn

Considering raising dairy calves to be used as dairy beef? A new factsheet from Beef Farmers of Ontario discusses opportunities to raise dairy beef in Ontario. Dairy beef is achieved by raising dairy calves to larger and older animals, more the 1,400 pounds, compared with the size of a typical veal calf. This beef product can be very consistent and high quality.

Why is the timing right for dairy beef in Ontario? There is a shortage of beef production in the province. Decreasing supply in North America has increased the price per lb. This growing worldwide demand for high-quality protein indicates these prices are likely to continue their upward trend. Now may be a good time to take advantage to add value to your dairy operation while contributing to the beef industry.

Another reason this works is the increasing cost of raising dairy heifers to become milking cows. Depending on the management style, costs to get a heifer to calving can range from $2,000 to $2,500. Typically, producers have kept all females-about half the calves grown in a year-to be replacement heifers. This means a 100-cow milking operation has 100 heifers around at all times with an average age to first calving of two years or more. Space, feed and labour is required to get these heifers into the milking herd.

New technologies, such as sexed semen and genomics, are making it feasible to guarantee top cows have heifer calves from bulls with high traits for production. Fewer females need to be kept to replace the milking herd. This frees up some low-producing cows to supply calves for the growing beef market.

If dairy farmers only need half their current heifers as replacements, they can eliminate half the cost to raise heifers, about $50,000 to $60,000 savings in a 100-cow herd, plus add value to the remaining calves they produce by using them for beef.

In Canada, male dairy calves enter the veal market as fed calves. In the United States, dairy calves are usually grown to a larger carcass weight so they can enter a traditional beef cut market.

Crossing dairy calves

Is the dairy-cross animal worth more as a feedlot animal? Worldwide research would indicate crossing dairy calves to beef increases carcass weight per day of age by 10 per cent. Muscle-to-bone ratio is typically indexed 105 to 108 in beef X dairy compared with pure Holstein cows.

Beef X dairy animals grow faster and have better carcass attributes. Are there any down sides to using beef bulls on dairy animals? The same studies indicate dairy cows bred to beef bulls have slightly lower milk production, plus a slightly longer rebreeding time. Most of this would appear to originate from beef x calves being bigger at birth.

Beef X calves also ate more feed than pure dairy steers. However, feed-to-gain in the crossbred calves was lower because of their higher growth rate.

How do you overcome any negative impacts from crossbreeding? You can effectively select bulls that produce low birth weight calves that grow quickly by using genomics and DNA testing. This would help mitigate the higher days to conception and lower milk yield in dairy cows that gave birth to X bred calves. The beauty of Holstein genetics is there is an incredible amount of uniformity because of narrowed genetic selection. This consistency is ideal for a branded beef program.

The dairy industry should use more sexed semen to breed end cows for heifer production to make a dairy beef production system work in Ontario. Dairy producers need to change their views on keeping dairy replacements just in case they are needed. A range of sexed semen beef bulls carrying genetic attributes that fit into a good crossbred program should be further promoted.

Management changes are also needed to address the challenges of raising dairy and veal calves. Respiratory diseases wreak havoc with young calves. A recent survey of Ontario dairy producers indicated less than half of them had a vaccination strategy for their calves against respiratory and scour diseases. New nasal spray vaccines for newborn calves may be effective, along with a long-term vaccination strategy. Producers should work with their veterinarian to design a program that fits their needs. Dairy calf animal welfare is sometimes neglected when low-value dairy male calves are sold from the farm. The industry can do a better job of co-ordinating farm-to-farm movement of calves in a timely fashion.

A new system to move week-old calves leaving the farm to 500 lb calves ready to enter traditional feedlots should be developed. This could involve current veal producers who already have the management skills to handle young calves. Dairy producers could retain these calves and develop a local freezer trade or branded beef marketing program. These animals could go from being weaned to pasture where they are checked before entering a high-grain finishing program.

Another technology that can benefit a dairy beef X program is a strong growth promoting program, increasing the muscle-to-bone ratio in the carcass.

Do your research

The new factsheet provides concrete numbers on the three phases of raising dairy beef. Along with these numbers, producers can input their own cost of production figures on the hard copy, or download an excel spreadsheet from the Beef Farmers of Ontario website at www.ontariobeef.com.

Can a dairy beef program thrive in Ontario today? Can the dairy industry be a major source of feedlot animals in Ontario? The beef cow herd and dairy cow herd in Ontario are roughly the same size. Using new technologies, such as sexed semen and genomic selection, could allow a larger percentage of the dairy calf crop to become a higher value sector of Ontario's meat industry. This can greatly enhance your farm's revenue stream.

This article was originally published in the Milk Producer Magazine.

For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300
E-mail: ag.info.omafra@ontario.ca
Author: Barry Potter - Livestock Specialist/OMAFRA
Creation Date: October 2015
Last Reviewed: October 2015