There’s much more potential for beef-on-dairy breedings than just settling cows.
That was the emphasis of Denise Schwab, extension beef specialist at Iowa State University, at the recent Midwest Dairy & Beef Day. Her presentation focused the dairy and beef producer attendees on what is currently important and what should be important when making matings for this still-developing market segment.
Dairies focus efforts on tough-breeding cows
Schwab first detailed the results of a 2018 survey of 69 dairy farms in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa that asked how they use beef genetics in their herd. Farms from 100 or fewer cows to those with over 1,000 cows were equally represented. Fifty-three of those 69 reported using at least some beef, and 45 answered the entirety of the survey questions.
An overwhelming 82% of farms said that their dairy replacement inventory number was a criterion in determining how much beef semen to use. And it comes as no surprise that when it’s time to choose which animals get beef-bred, 80% of farms make decisions by identifying cows that have failed to get pregnant with dairy semen.
When choosing beef mating sires, dairy producers again focused on their hard breeders. The most frequent top priority when evaluating bulls was conception rate.
The most common second choice was calving ease. Semen cost was also a heavy consideration in deciding which beef bulls to use.
Selection will make the most of the market
A consequence of using beef semen to get dairy cows pregnant and back into the lactation cycle is obviously the calves they give birth to. But these crossbreds don’t currently have a place in the dairy system — so dairy farmers sell them into the beef system in hopes of capitalizing on their added value. To truly realize that value, however, Schwab says we can do more.
“If we’re going to do the crossbreeding, we’ve got to get a beef calf out of a dairy cow,” she told producers.
How is that possible? It means selecting sires not just through conception rate blinders but also from a beef perspective. In the survey Schwab first summarized, 62% of producers said the main beef breed used on their farm was Black Angus. This broad use is not necessarily problematic, because Angus, as the largest breed, often provides the most quality and data, and a black hide opens up for sale in the Certified Angus Beef market. On the other hand, it is important to ensure we are still breeding for complementarity, just like in a dairy mating.
What to look for
Schwab explained that both full- and half-blood Holstein steers already do well on frame size and carcass grade, but dairy farmers can stand to improve the quality of their product by breeding for bull calves with larger and more shapely ribeyes. Most beef breeds calculate expected progeny differences (EPDs) for ribeye size, and selecting for bulls that add ribeye area will make for higher-value beef calves. Schwab also identified that beef bulls used on dairy cows should have acceptable calving ease (top third of breed) and marbling (top 70% of breed) numbers. When mating Jersey cows, the sire must add pounds and muscle, but for Holsteins, a moderate skeletal size will be enough.
In the end, customers for these calves want an animal that will look, grow, and yield like a beef animal.
Many unknowns remain about the dairy-beef system and market. We are still experimenting with how to best manage them, and there’s not enough data yet to fully understand how these animals will affect the beef market. Schwab realized that dairy bull studs are learning about beef genetics along with dairy producers right now.
There are many potentially viable options for dairy farmers aiming to add value to their herd with beef genetics. Using quality beef bulls to produce desirable dairy-beef calves will only strengthen the system and further improve value.