Farm Progress

Long-stemmed forage is detrimental to feed efficiency and dressing percentage,

November 2, 2016

4 Min Read

In January 2016, according to the USDA, there were 30.3 million beef cows and 9.3 million dairy cows in the U.S. This has resulted in dairy animals being an increasing proportion of the beef supply compared with past decades. In the Midwest, more operations are feeding dairy steers due to their consistent supply and performance compared with beef breeds.


Some of the biggest differences between feeding Holsteins and beef breeds are the time on feed due to the age and weight that animals are placed in the feedlot, the differences in feed conversion and expected average daily gain, and the final weight. With beef breeds, many steers go into the feedlot at 500 to 850 pounds and reach their finished weight at 1,200 to 1,400 pounds. This results in feeding periods from 140 to 200 days, with an average daily gain of 3.4 to 3.9 pounds per day and a feed to gain conversion of 5.6 to 6.4 on a dry matter basis. For updated information on current feedlot performance, visit Kansas State University’s Focus on Feedlots:

In contrast, Holsteins require anywhere from 8% to 12% more energy to meet maintenance energy requirements, due to a variety of factors including greater frame size, thinner hide and hair coat, and less subcutaneous fat, which makes them more susceptible to environmental stresses such as mud, rain, snow or wind. They also consume approximately 7% more feed than beef steers, as reported in an online publication from the University of Minnesota ( that outlines the nutritional requirements of Holsteins at various stages. Average daily gain rarely exceeds 3.4 pounds per day, with a realistic range being 2.8 to 3.4 pounds, under a variety of feedlot conditions.

From a carcass standpoint, Holstein cattle have carcasses with a higher numerical yield grade than beef breeds due to heavier carcass weights, smaller longissimus muscle areas, and higher kidney, pelvic and heart fat (KPH) percentages. Dairy steers have a lower dressing percentage, which is calculated by dividing the hot carcass weight by the live weight at harvest, compared with beef steers. In general, dairy steers have a dressing percentage between 55% and 62%, with an average of 58% to 60%, compared with beef steers that normally range between 58% and 65%, with an average of 62% to 64%. The factors that tend to lower dressing percentage are cattle being lighter muscled, having less fat, having a greater gut fill and larger visceral organs, having mud on the hide, and having a greater proportion of live weight in head, feet and leg bones.

With Holsteins, it is critical to feed as little long-stemmed forage in the feedlot as possible to reduce maintenance energy requirements, increase the energy density of the diet and increase the dressing percentage of carcasses. In ruminants, maintaining the digestive organs (rumen, reticulum, omasum, abomasum, small intestine and large intestine) plus the liver and kidneys can take as much as 40% to 50% of the energy and 30% to 40% of the protein consumed in a day.

Forage diets that are very bulky and only 40% to 60% digestible increase the weight of the digestive tract. In contrast, grain-based diets result in decreased organ weights compared with forages, because grains are 80% to 100% digestible, and have a much smaller particle size, which allows them to have a faster rate of digestion and passage through the digestive tract. The result is that grain is more digestible than forage, plus it decreases an animal’s maintenance requirement by resulting in less digestive organ mass, leaving more nutrients for muscle growth and fattening.

Sainz et al. (1995) reported steers fed a high-forage growing diet had 21% (P < 0.01) greater maintenance requirements during the finishing phase compared to those grown on a high-concentrate diet and slaughtered at the same carcass weight. Thus, long-stemmed forage is detrimental to feed efficiency and dressing percentage, and with Holsteins, the negative impacts on carcass traits can have a significant economic impact if steers grow in size, but do not deposit fat.

Feedlot nutrition and management are constantly evolving. With Holsteins, reducing maintenance energy costs through feeding a highly digestible, grain-based diet will improve the efficiency of gain and carcass characteristics, and allow animals to achieve a USDA Choice carcass. Remember, there are ways to improve efficiency, alter the composition of gain, improve carcass characteristics and increase profit potential with appropriate feeding and management.

Fluharty is a research professor in the Ohio State University Department of Animal Sciences and a member of the OSU Extension Beef Team. He can be reached at [email protected].

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