February 2, 2023
Raising dairy-beef crossbred calves is not just a passing fad in the dairy industry, says Troy Wistuba, vice president of feed and additive technical improvement at Purina Animal Nutrition Center.
“Currently, there are roughly 2½ to 3 million dairy-beef crosses in the U.S.,” Wistuba notes. “There’s projections that the number will probably end up somewhere around 6 million.”
Dairy farmers are buying into this management strategy as it helps reduce risk by diversifying revenue.
Wistuba and researchers at Purina in Gray Summit, Mo., are focused on helping farmers bring dairy-beef cross animals to the market in a productive, efficient and cost-effective manner. That requires a deeper look at nutrition starting at birth.
Milk replacer research results
Dairy-beef crossbred calves are like purebred dairy calves — they are fed milk replacer during the early stages of life. However, with more beef genetics in their design, it begs the question of how much milk replacer is needed.
Over the past three years, Olivia Genther-Schroeder, Purina Dairy Feed research and development senior manager, and other researchers looked at the nutritional needs specifically for dairy-beef crossbred calves.
The Purina Animal Nutrition Center acquires calves that are primarily Holstein-Angus crosses. However, they also incorporate Red Angus, Simmental and Charolais beef genetics. In addition, they have some Jersey-based calves from Angus and Limousin genetics.
The resulting calves were fed different nutritional programs to the dairy-beef crosses and compared to similar programs fed to purebred dairy calves.
They assessed the “plane of nutrition,” which includes the pounds of milk replacer fed per day. Genther-Schroeder says the research focused on the first 12 weeks of a dairy-beef calf’s life, trying to pinpoint the right amount for the right length of time.
The research found that while these crosses do very well on high planes of nutrition such as 2½ pounds of milk replacer per day, the ideal program is 1.8 pounds, feeding it through at least 8 weeks of age. “That has really been our best balance between cost as well as performance,” Genther-Schroeder adds.
Growing dairy-beef calves
Genther-Schroeder points out that the goal of raising dairy-beef crossbreds is to produce “a consistent, heavily muscled calf.”
Fed the same high plane of nutrition, or 1.5-1.8 pounds of milk replacer per day, dairy-beef crossbred calves have increased body weight, less hip height and increased rib-eye area compared to Holstein calves, according to Purina research.
“We see 60% more rib-eye area in that dairy-beef cross calf,” she notes. “It makes sense. We’re adding beef genetics, and those genetics are designed for muscle.”
Genther-Schroeder says farmers should add a starter feed with 20% protein as dairy-beef crosses are building a lot of muscle. The calves also perform better, resulting in a reduction in cost per pound of gain when fed 1.5-1.8 pounds of milk replacer per day.
However, farmers should resist the urge to wean early, and stick to eight to nine weeks, similar to purebred Holstein calves. Pulling them off milk replacer too early requires more dry feed, and these young beef-dairy crosses have not developed a rumen large enough to handle it.
Road to the finish line
Genther-Schroeder says Purina Animal Nutrition, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Land O’Lakes Inc., has a limited amount of finishing data at this point.
Right now, the industry average from start to finish at 1,500-pounds is 19 months for a Holstein. In Purina’s research findings, dairy-beef calves following a nutrition plan feeding between 1.5 and 2.5 pounds of milk replacer per day and starter feed with 18% to 22% protein contributes to dropping that time frame as low as 13.1 months.
Comparing a typical commercial feed plan to that higher plane of nutrition, the research finds more dairy-beef calves make it to harvest. Genther-Schroeder adds that a greater number of those calves grade Choice.
“That's really the goal at the end of the day,” she adds. “What can we do early on in a calf’s life that hopefully will impact finishing later?”
Dairy-beef cross in a grass operation
Research continues around how dairy-beef crossbred calves perform on grass.
Wistuba points to an Oklahoma State University project that places dairy-beef crossbred calves into a grass stocker operation and follows the animals as they enter the feedyard as a yearling feeder through to harvest at 1,500 pounds.
“Because these crossbreds have a different tissue growth rate,” he explains, “we don't know how they'll respond on grass. That's one of the things that we're trying to figure out with the collaborative research with Oklahoma State.”
He points out that some grass finished dairy-beef calves grow more in frame and cannot run on the harvest facility rail.
“They end up looking more like Holsteins than beef cattle, which means those cattle probably won’t finish until they are 1,600 to 1,700 pounds and they won’t fit on the rail,” he says. “That will be bad for the industry.”
Keeping dairy-beef cross calves performing, looking and cutting more like beef cattle will offer more opportunities for cattle producers.
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