Staying profitable year in and year out in the farming and ranching business is not easily achieved. Perhaps there is no bigger case of this than with dairy farmers who have struggled with low fluid milk prices for years.
However, dairy farmers are realizing that their approximately 5 million breeding-age heifers and 9 million cows can generate profit from more than just milk. One of the most underdeveloped potential profit centers is the production of specialized dairy crossed steer calves and excess heifers that can be profitably fed and marketed by feedyards. With that in mind, there has been an exponential increase in the use of beef semen in dairy herds to produce more desirable feeder cattle.
Affordable genomic tests that give commercial dairy producers a look at their heifers’ genetic potential has helped make this happen. Dairy farmers can now determine if a heifer entering the herd has the genetics to produce outstanding replacement dairy females or would be better used to breed beef bulls to produce value-added feeder cattle.
Sexed semen is another piece of the puzzle that allows the top dairy heifers and cows to have only heifer calves, decreasing the number of females needed to supply a dairy operation with replacements. Statistics from the National Association of Animal Breeders (NAAB) show how popular it has become to breed the bottom-end dairy cows to beef bulls, with a 59 percent increase in beef semen last year alone. To be sure, the majority of this increased semen in going into dairy cows and not beef cows.
However, the use of beef semen in dairy cows has often involved little thought in terms of selecting the right bulls, so dairy producers need a better strategy to make this system sustainable.
Until now, the most popular bulls have only had to fit two criteria—black hided and cheap—which often resulted in sub-par results. For instance, dairy steers receive a significant discount because of their high maintenance costs in the feedlot, and low dressing percentage and poor cutout at the packing plant. Those who market semen are finding that too many dairy producers’ first choice for breeding their low-end cows is cheap Angus semen. While this has helped with the feeding phase, the conformation of the calves has not been changed enough to avoid the dairy steer discount at the packing plant.
A better plan is needed.
Limousin breeder, Wulf Cattle Company, has been one of the leaders in supplying Limousin and hybrid LimFlex semen for use in dairy cattle. They cut their teeth on working with Jerseys and have since branched into Holsteins, as well.
Jerseys have a special affinity for marbling, so Limousin genetics improve all other aspects including feed efficiency, carcass weight, and yield grade. Crossbreeding with black Limousin, and other black-hided beef breeds, can also provide for eligibility for Angus-branded beef programs—which generally have hide color, conformation, and carcass quality as their requirements rather than actual breed requirements. Limousin crosses have also been shown to decrease the number of animals receiving discounts for dairy conformation to less than 1 percent. Wulf Cattle Company has named their program “Breeding to Feeding,” which has resulted in a spike in Limousin semen sales.
The Breeding to Feeding program has taken the almost valueless Jersey bull calves and made them into a profit-making commodity. Purebred Jerseys and Guernseys also cut with yellow fat due to the presence of beta carotene at higher than normal levels compared to other breeds. This is because the other breeds more readily convert the beta carotene into Vitamin A. Cattle that cut with yellow fat are also setting themselves up for further discounts, but when crossed with a beef animal, this problem is eliminated.
Perhaps one of the more innovative and scientifically sound programs to be announced is Holstein USA and American Simmental Association’s HOLSim system. Unlike Jerseys, which are a small breed that will hang too light a carcass, Holsteins are more likely to receive discounts for carcasses that are too big.
The American Simmental Association’s lead on the program, Chip Kemp, said one of the keys to HOLSim is not only to improve conformation while maintaining quality grade, but to also produce carcasses that fit the system size-wise. Kemp is a past employee of one of the major packers and reiterated that one of the major problems with dairy steers’ carcasses is they are often just too long for plant rail height.
Although Holsteins used to have the genetic potential to out-marble beef breeds, the steep improvement in marbling genetics in beef cattle—especially in Angus—means beef bulls often meet or exceed Holstein’s marbling potential. So, to produce desirable crossbred feeder cattle, Holsteins need a unique combination of traits in the beef bulls they are bred to, including calving ease (no profit in a dead calf), homozygous polled, homozygous black, moderate growth to avoid carcasses that are too long for the plant rail system, high ribeye area, and marbling.
When the American Simmental Association and Holstein USA put together an index using the International Genetic Solution’s (IGS’) Feeder Profit Calculator to sort the bulls’ genetic predictions calculated through IGS, they found that the most appropriate bulls were Angus hybrids, of which 91 percent were SimAngus (Simmental, Angus hybrids).
When they fine-tuned which bulls were the best sires for the program, of the approximately 30,000 possible SimAngus bulls, only 243 made the grade. The goal now is to encourage studs to make bulls from this elite list available, and then to collect data on as many offspring as possible. This will allow them to further validate and fine-tune the program.
Holstein CEO John Meyer also sees another upside to these dairy/beef crosses is that dairy producers calve year-round. This eliminates the seasonal peaks and valleys seen with beef production, where the vast majority of cows calve in the spring.
Dairy cows crossed with highly-selected beef bulls is an up-and-coming system that has the potential to significantly increase the amount of consistent, high-quality beef available to consumers.
To make it work, dairy producers need to think past what is the cheapest semen from black bulls. Programs like Breeding to Feeding and HOLSim differentiate those that use a structured planned breeding to produce profitable feeder cattle, from the happenstance product that results from breeding to “just another black bull.” — Dr. Bob Hough
(Dr. Bob Hough is the retired executive vice president of the Red Angus Association of America and freelance writer.)