‘Beef on dairy’ breeding sweeps dairy industry

Over the past five years or so, the practice of breeding beef cows from dairy cows to possibly yield more income for dairy farmers has swept the dairy industry. It involves using sexed semen and advanced genetics to have dairy cows produce beef calves and heifers that are worth more when their milking days are over. The results, promoters say, include not only increased profits for dairy farmers, but increased efficiencies and more environmentally sustainable beef raising practices.

According to stud service company ABS, “The idea of crossbreeding low genetic or productive dairy cows with beef semen has become a growing practice on dairies. The main reason for the growth is the increased value of the offspring when compared to the traditional dairy male calf.”

A year ago, Larry Corah, veteran cattle industry pioneer and professor emeritus at Kansas State University, wrote in Progressive Dairy that 7 million units of beef semen were used on dairy cows in 2020. Calculating three or four uses to achieve one pregnancy, Corah estimated that the first nine months of 2021 would see between 1.7 million and 2 million beef-on-dairy cows born.

Dale Woerner has been at the center of efforts to develop and promote beef-on-dairy breeding. As associate professor and Cargill Endowed Professor at the Department of Animal and Food Sciences at Texas Tech University, and a longtime meat and food industry consultant, Woerner collaborated with Cargill in a recently concluded three-year study of beef-on-dairy breeding.

Among the Cargill study’s findings:

• Compared to purebred dairy calves, beef-on-dairy calves can provide higher-quality beef products without affecting current milk production efficiencies.

• Beef-on-dairy calves show greater feed efficiency compared to purebred dairy calves. Proponents say this lowers the environmental footprint associated with their production.

• Increased feed efficiency also reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

• Cross breeding delivers increased volumes of higher-grading beef carcasses.

It’s been during the past five years that the practice has really taken off, said Woerner, who called it “producer led.” “Purebred dairy steers were not making it into the beef market past the calf stage” in the past, he said, due to their lesser quality, muscle mass and protein content.

Woerner estimates that 75% of dairy cattle are now bred to beef bull semen and he believes between 18% and 20% of slaughtered beef now has a dairy origin. “The overall beef herd is shrinking, but the proportion of dairy cows within it is increasing,” he said.

“The return to dairy producers is tremendous,” Woerner told High Plains Journal. “Beef-on-dairy in no way decreases the level of beef quality.” The superior genetics and “carcass performance” of the crossbred cattle could mean the difference between $20 to $50 for a traditional dairy calf and $250 to $400 for a crossbred with select genetics. That’s due to the better red meat yields, eating quality and increases in feed efficiency.

The beef-on-dairy crossbreds usually transition to grain for longer, he said, being weaned earlier, going straight to a grain diet from milk-replacement on calf ranches after weaning and being grown to 500 pounds. “Some are backgrounded on grass, but most go into a grower yard,” where they are grain fed, Woerner said.

Sexed semen, improved genomics

Crossbreeding itself is not new. “It’s been going on in a smaller way for some time,” said Woerner. The two key factors for the spread of dairy-on-beef were improvements in the use of sexed semen that resulted in the technology’s commercialization and up-scaling in 2004, and better genomics that allowed for more targeted selection of specific genetic traits.

According to Lauren Kimble, a supply chain logistics coordinator for Select Sires, Inc., the top global supplier of beef semen, “Growth in sexed semen use has allowed herds to improve their selection intensity and therefore accelerate genetic progress by only producing dairy replacements out of the highest-merit females. Using sexed semen on a concentrated number of the best females has left plenty of room within herds’ breeding strategies to breed lower-merit females to beef, which prevents overproduction of replacements while simultaneously generating more profit from marketing those cull calves.”

Kimble said production of sexed dairy semen has scaled greatly over the years, with improved technology making it more affordable and more reliably fertile, leading to greater trust among producers. The proven advantages of BxD crosses are bringing more profit to dairy producers. “A BxD cross can bring $50 to $150 over a straight Holstein, and there is now a noticeable spread between BxD crosses of unknown merit and BxD crosses of known, high-merit parentage and source,” said Kimble.

Costs and considerations

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There are costs and issues associated with beef on dairy that must be considered, said Kimble. “While semen use for BxD crossbreeding is very widely accepted, some producers may balk when it comes to considering progressive strategies. There are new, progressive strategies which can still be adopted to complement crossbreeding. One such strategy is implanting full-beef embryos in lower-merit dairy females, to produce a true beef calf. While there are many costs and management considerations associated with purchasing and transferring embryos, a full beef calf could bring up to $400.”

Implanting beef embryos will not completely replace, but rather will complement, insemination with beef semen in these herds, she said. Not every dairy female is a good embryo recipient candidate, and so the strategies will be used in tandem, Kimble said, insemination for less fertile cows, and embryo transfer for the more fertile females.

“Select Sires now offers a ‘male pack’ of sexed male beef semen from multiple bulls, which will set producers up to remain competitive in those markets placing a higher value on steers over heifers,” she said. The payoff could be “especially profitable in herds whose straight dairy or dairy crossbreds are worth very little in today’s market, i.e. Jerseys or Jersey x beef crosses.”

Reagan Bluel, a dairy field specialist with University of Missouri Extension program, who has conducted extensive research on beef on dairy, said the trend shows the “de-siloing” of the dairy industry as well as its increasing vertical integration. Beef and dairy cows traditionally were even processed differently, with different equipment. “I know one Ozark beef processor that is not interested in dairy cows because of the different size and muscle mass; its equipment is calibrated for beef cattle,” she said.

Big data management has been crucial to traceability. “Dairy farmers were always great at collecting huge amounts of data,” said Bluel. Dairy cows are milked twice daily, and milk volume data helps target desired genetic traits. Traceability from birth through carcass performance has also been key.

“Select Sires has developed supply chain relationships and through data sharing, is improving age-source verification and striving to assess beef cross performance throughout their lifetime with respect to parentage, breed makeup, and more,” said Kimble.

“We have more tools than ever before to be strategic in maximizing revenue with our cattle,” said Kirk Sattazahn, vice president of marketing and development for Premier Select Sires, one of the six member cooperatives that, together, form the national group of Select Sires. “We can assist producers in doing genetic inventory calculations to ensure that the best dairy females get mated to the best genetic sires. We can then identify opportunities within the genetic group that does not rank as high to maximize revenue from those calves with beef sires.”

David Murray can be reached at [email protected].