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Beef-on-dairy breeding becoming popularBeef-on-dairy breeding becoming popular

The resulting crossbred calves are worth more than straight dairy calves.

Heather Smith Thomas

September 21, 2023

5 Min Read
Crossbred calves
400-pound beef-Holstein cross calves are in a barn.Paul Heinrich

Most dairies use sexed semen on their best cows to produce replacement heifers, and many are now breeding the rest of their cows via artificial insemination to beef bulls. The resulting crossbred calves are worth more than straight dairy calves—whether as day-old babies or sold at weaning age from a calf farm.

Some feedlots now specialize in feeding and finishing these crossbreds. Jonathon Beckett, a feedlot nutrition consultant based in California, has been working with feedlots for 16 years in Arizona, Southern California, and the central plains, and has seen a larger number of dairy-cross calves coming into feedlots the past two years.

“The quality of these crossbreds has improved dramatically,” he said. “When dairies first started doing this, they used any readily available Angus semen and quality of the calves was not consistent. Now they have a better idea of what matches well with Holsteins.”

Feedlot performance and carcass traits have improved. “The cattle are marbling better and have improved rib-eye area and better muscling. This helps the packers. I’ve had several lots of cattle that were 30% to 40% Prime, which is outstanding.”

Crosses grade well

The dairy influence is not detrimental. “Holstein cattle tend to marble extremely well, themselves. The crosses are grading better now, which is a testament to the better selection of beef semen,” he said.

Related:Beef on dairy brings new value to the marketplace

“The main complaints from packers is liver abscesses. Incidence of liver abscesses in Angus-Holstein crosses is higher than in straight Holsteins. Everyone is trying to find a way to minimize liver abscesses in these crossbreds,” said Beckett. 

“We have many tools to deal with this, but a lot of it comes down to gut health and maintaining steady consumption of feed,” he said. You don’t want big swings in energy that happen when cattle go off feed for a bit and then load up again. Hot weather doesn’t help, since it can cause cattle to go off feed.

“Also, animals with dairy genetics have a different response to hormone, so the choice of implants will have a bigger impact on these cattle,” Beckett explains.

An issue, especially in the Southwest, is that Angus-cross calves do not tolerate heat as well as straight Holsteins. Feedlots need a strategy for this type of feeder calf. 

“I don’t see as many Charolais crosses as I’d like; the Charolais-dairy crosses feed very well and grade well and have less problem with heat stress,” he said. “One of the advantages of the Angus-Holstein cross, however, is that you may get 50 to 70% of them qualify for Certified Angus Beef premiums. There is a lot of value in this, and that’s why many dairymen prefer to use Angus semen.”

Related:How to feed dairy-beef crossbred calves

More research

Brad Johnson, a professor of meat science and muscle biology at Texas Tech University,  says there’s been an increasing amount of recent research on these calves. 

“In one study, we had a variety of different types of calves—with different genetics and different management strategies,” he said. The same Angus bull (Momentum, from Select Sires) was bred AI to Holstein and Jersey cows and used to also create ET calves.

“For a positive control, we bred our cow-calf herd here at Texas Tech to the same sire, using AI. These were all half-sibs in 5 different groups,” he explains.

“The beef embryos in Holstein cows, the beef embryos in Jersey cows and calves from two AI groups were left on calf ranches on dairies where they were born. They were reared in hutches, just like beef-on-dairy calves would be reared at a calf ranch. But the controls—calves born to cows here at Texas Tech—were reared in a traditional cow-calf situation on pasture for about 190 days before weaning,” he said.

“We looked at everything from day one all the way through carcass data on all groups,” he added. “In addition, from feedlot phase on, we had a sixth group which was straight Holstein steers.”

From calf performance standpoint, the calves reared in a cow-calf situation and allowed to suckle their mothers for 190 days had the greatest growth rate. The Angus-Holstein cross calves did very well and were one of the best groups in the feedlot.

“We got all calves to 700 pounds and put them in a feedlot trial, fed for 196 days.  It didn’t matter if they were Angus-Jersey, straight Holsteins or Angus-Holsteins; they were all fed the same length of time,” said Johnson.

Compared to all combinations, the Angus-Holsteins did best and were similar in performance to the all-beef calves in this test. From a carcass standpoint, they also did very well. 

“The Angus sire we used in all combinations is in the top 1% in the Angus breed for marbling,” or intramuscular fat, he said. “All the animals—whether beef-on-dairy or straight beef animals—had great carcasses. We ended up with almost 60% Prime.” 

They graded well, and marbling was excellent.

“The only difference with the Angus-Holsteins was that they tend to have lower dressing percentage than the all-beef animals. Though their performance on a live basis, such as feed efficiency and daily gain, was similar to the all-beef animals, because of the dairy influence on the dam’s side they tend to have lower dressing percent--about ¾ of a percent lower, compared to the all-beef animals,” said Johnson.

“Every other attribute, however, from a beef quality standpoint, was either the same as beef, or better. The beef-on-dairy animals tend to be more tender, due to the dairy influence. Holstein steers are very tender,” he said.

Some crosses discounted

Some packers have been discounting dairy crosses about $20 to $25 per head, however.  This is partly due to liver abscesses and partly due to internal fat. “These crosses tend to have more fat around the kidneys, pelvic area, etc.  Another reason is what they are calling red meat yield differences,” Johnson said.          

Though beef-on-dairy cattle have less back fat than a straight beef animal, are leaner and trimmer, and have the same ribeye size, they tend to have less muscling in the hindquarters (the round)--more like a dairy animal. 

“For those three reasons, packers are discounting dairy crosses, even though some of those reasons are unfounded. Red meat yield is actually very good. We’ve shown here in Texas that some of the best beef-on-dairy animals are actually better than the average beef animal. But on the lower end, some animals have more variation in carcass, so some packers use this as a reason to discount these animals. Right now, however, many are not discounted because we are so short on cattle. If they find the right kind of beef-on-dairy calves, this cross is working very well for them,” he says.

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