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Research involves weighing and measuring young calves.

Fran O'Leary, Wisconsin Agriculturist Editor

November 29, 2021

3 Min Read
Two dairy beef calves
CALF STUDY: In a University of Wisconsin-Madison study, county Extension agents weigh dairy-beef crossbred calves at birth to 3 weeks old. They measure the calves’ faces, front legs and hip height. They take the same measurements again when calves are between 120 and 150 days old. Aerica Bjurstrom

About a decade ago, a few Wisconsin dairy farmers began breeding the bottom end of their herds to AI beef bulls to get dairy-beef crossbred calves. The practice really took off about five years ago and has become quite popular across the state.

In January, several county Extension agriculture agents began helping gather data for a study being conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the study, county Extension agents weigh dairy-beef crossbred calves at birth to 3 weeks old. They measure the calf’s face length and width, the diameter of its front leg above and below the knee, and its hip height.

“We are also using 3D video cameras to get a view from the top,” explains Bill Halfman, Monroe County Extension agriculture agent.

When the calf is between 120 and 150 days old, the Extension agents take all the same measurements again. Then they visually appraise each animal.

“We make a judgment call about whether we think the calf looks more dairy, more beef or both,” says Aerica Bjurstrom, Kewaunee County Extension dairy and livestock agent. “The goal is to determine if it is possible to predict what they will look like at harvest time when they are small, and potentially if it is worth it for a farmer to raise the calf to market weight or sell some or all of them as calves.”

Dairy-beef worth more

Farmers are getting an average of $80 to $150 more for week-old dairy-beef crossbred calves than what Holstein bull calves are bringing, Halfman says. Consequently, many dairy farms breeding cows to AI beef bulls are selling crossbreds as calves.

“Some of the Jersey farms are also breeding a percentage of their herd to beef bulls,” Halfman says. “The market pays a lot more for dairy-beef calves than they get for Jersey bull calves.”

Halfman says while raising dairy-beef crossbreds is a good fit for some farms, it’s not as good for others.

“For some it works out really well, especially if they have the feed, the housing and the labor to help take care of them,” he notes.

In 2018, Halfman says 69 Wisconsin farms responded to a survey asking what breeds of beef bulls they were using on their dairy cows.

“Sixty-two percent said they were using black Angus AI bulls,” Halfman says. “Some said they are using Simmental, Limousine, and Simmental-Angus crossbred bulls and Limousine-Angus crossbred bulls.”

Are there any differences between dairy-beef crossbreds and beef cattle? Bjurstrom says dairy-beef crossbreds have more bone (meaning meat-to-bone ratio) than beef cattle. “But the quality of the beef from dairy-beef crossbreds is just as good as beef cattle — it all tastes great,” she says.

The Extension agents are working with Joao Dorea, a dairy science professor at UW-Madison. The Extension agents plan to continue gathering information on farms in 2022.

“We’re still in the research part of our study,” Halfman says. “We would really like more farms to participate.” They hope to be done with the study by the end of 2022, he adds.

“It all depends on when we have observed enough calves,” Halfman notes. “If there are some folks who will let us weigh, measure and observe their calves a couple times, that would really help us out.”

Dairy farmers interested in participating in the study may call Halfman at 608-269-8722, Bjurstrom at 920-388-7138 or St. Croix County Extension ag agent Ryan Sterry at 715-531-1950.

About the Author(s)

Fran O'Leary

Wisconsin Agriculturist Editor

Even though Fran was born and raised on a farm in Illinois, she has spent most of her life in Wisconsin. She moved to the state when she was 18 years old and later graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with a bachelor's degree in journalism.

Fran has 25 years of experience writing, editing and taking pictures. Before becoming editor of the Wisconsin Agriculturist in 2003, she worked at Johnson Hill Press in Fort Atkinson as a writer and editor of farm business publications and at the Janesville Gazette in Janesville as farm editor and feature writer. Later, she signed on as a public relations associate at Bader Rutter in Brookfield, and served as managing editor and farm editor at The Reporter, a daily newspaper in Fond du Lac.

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