Industry panel shares thoughts on beef on dairy calves

Calves are a product of the dairy industry. Cows must be bred to produce milk, but are those subsequent calves a missed opportunity?

Attendees asked that question during the Beef on Dairy Symposium held June 9 as part of Beef Empire Days in Garden City, Kansas. One attendee called the calves a byproduct that now could be a great opportunity for cattle feeders. Using beef semen on the dairy cows, the crossbred calves could be an untapped market—that’s if the dairies, feeders, calf ranches and packers could all work together to find an avenue for the end product.

Justin Waggoner, beef cattle specialist, Kansas State University, moderated the panel and said many do view these calves as a “byproduct of the dairy industry.”

“More and more they are a product of the dairy industry and I think that is a phenomenal shift, it’s a fundamental shift,” Waggoner said. “I think it’s going to take some time to catch up because they have for a long time been a byproduct of the systems that are put in place.”

Tom Jones, owner at Hy-Plains Feed Yard in Montezuma, Kansas, said he’s been feeding beef and dairy cross cattle for about seven years. He struggled finding the right cross for these cattle that a packer would take.

“They were either nice phenotype or good performing cattle carcass wise,” he said. “And we failed miserably, to be honest with us about it.”

They went back to the drawing board and have managed to move forward. Holstein or Jersey cattle don’t finish the same way as traditional beef breeds do, and they’ve had to do extra work on the backend sorting and adjusting rations to fit the needs of the dairy breed cattle in the yard.

“That’s been an issue that we’re trying to handle and we’re at this point having to pull all those cattle out—and feed those separately and get into the proper endpoint,” he said.

He’s working on a trial now, and looking at the phenotypes of the cattle now, it’s hard to tell the difference. In about 95% of the cattle he struggles seeing breed makeup.

“But there is a 5% or better end of these cattle in here that still have that dairy looking head, not much shape in their round, maybe a little bit too much spring of the rib,” he said. “Those are things that the packer doesn’t like.”

The packer also doesn’t like the tail of the strip steak that ends up being too long. Holstein genetics add the length of some of the muscle.

“That’s one of the first things that I think genetics wise that we’re working on to get rid of,” he said. “And that’s why we need a beefy type of cattle to put a product in front of a consumer, rather than just straight Holsteins.”

Amanda Arata of Kansas Dairy Development in Deerfield, Kansas, said her calf ranch raises calves from dairies—about 15,000 babies on the bottle. Calves are in hutches before moving on to transition barns.

“Those calves all leave us at about six months and head to different feedyards or different growing systems,” she said. “Most of the calves that come to us are from dairies in the Upper Midwest—Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, some from Iowa, some farther away from Florida and New York.”

The labor-intensive facility has about 200 calves per employee. KDD also has a heifer development segment, where they grow dairy replacement heifers from six months to 22 months of age. Those will eventually go into the dairy system for milk production.

Bob Sato of Friona Industries, Amarillo, Texas, has a feeding capacity of about 610,000 cattle on feed in eight feedyards. He believes the beef on dairy program gives the operation flexibility.

“We have about 50,000 of these dairy cross calves on feed,” he said. “These are what we call commodity.”

Most often Sato doesn’t know the beef sire of the calves, but knows where the dairy comes from in the cross. He hopes to move toward the top 5% of the Angus breed, along with Charolais, allowing the subsequent cattle to be higher performing in the feedyard as well as on the rail.

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“One added benefit of the program that we like is that within the first couple hours that calf’s life they’re going to have the colostrum which we feel is invaluable at the dairy for that animal’s success later on not only just in calf ranch but in the feedyard,” he said.

Traceability is also important for Sato.

“Obviously individual animal ID is big for us,” he said. “I think as you look at the world we live in today and the consumers preferences that we have everybody wants food with a story. They want to know that where this animal came from, how it was treated, whether it’s responsibly raised.”

Having responsible calf raisers is an important part of the conversation, especially since it plays into their performance at the feedyard.

“Not that we’re going to be standing over top of anybody and tell them what nutrition program to use or what animal health program to use,” he said. “But at least we know what went into that animal from the feed perspective and what the animal was treated with.”

Sato is also keen on third-party verification systems and feels they are going to be more and more emphasized in the future.

“How do we use tools like that to help us tell our stories on the beef side that we do raise a responsible animal, good animal, high quality product, treat the animal right, feed it right?” he said. “We like several different aspects of the beef on dairy cross animals—we want to have three or four million of these calves around, we don’t need to feed all of them, we just want to feed the right ones that meet our grid specs and kind of meet the consumers preferences.”

Waggoner reiterated the importance of the different aspects of the supply chain presented at the meeting, and said there’s more work to be done on this segment of the beef industry. He asked Jones, Arata and Sato to mention one important concept to close the meeting on.

For Jones, Hy-Plains needs to figure out how to manage data back and forth between all the different entities out there.

“We’re trying to find the dairies that really want to look at and see what we need,” he said. “We need to get a lot more muscle in some of these cattle. We need to get their quality grade up where we’re doing very well.”

But as the data gets back to their genetics people to help them do a better job of selecting cattle to feed he thinks the process will become more successful.

Arata said from the dairy side of it, they have an immense collection of data on the animals in their care. The stats don’t really help the feedyards directly, but if the dairies had feedback regarding the data collected from the calves that were fed out, it could help breeding at the dairy.

“Dairies always do extra—whatever you asked them to do,” she said. “Each dairy has taken a path with their genetics for a long period of time really gone down some pretty deep rows of what is of important value to them.”

Sato reiterated how collaboration will make a beef on dairy system work.

“There’s going to be data sharing. It’s going to take all of us in this room—the packers, the feeder, the calf ranch, all the way to the genetic company,” he said. “We’re going to share the data back—good or bad or indifferent. The calf ranch gets better, the dairies get better, we get better. “We will make a commitment to do that.”

Sato believes the production hurdles will get figured out.

“There’s no doubt in my mind—the minds in this room, industries who are involved with it will continue to get better and figure it out,” he said.

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].