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Kansas is home to 161,000 dairy cows, and the number grows each year with every large dairy that chooses to relocate to the Sunflower State. For nearly 20 years the Plains has been an ideal relocation point for many dairies looking for the land, feed and social environment to expand their operations.

In Kansas, milk production is now a $1.1 billion industry. Corn and forage farmers have taken notice of the expanded market for their crops. Dairy processors have invested in facilities such as the 267,000-square-foot Dairy Farmers of America plant in Garden City, Kansas—the largest single milk dryer in North America.

And the state’s cattle feedlots have started to see growing opportunities in feeding out dairy, and now dairy composite calves in their yards.

Composite calves

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Composite cattle like this pen of beef and dairy crossbred steers at Hy-Plains Feedyard, Montezuma, Kansas, are becoming more common sights. Dairy producers are still learning what beef sires produce the more ideal calves for the beef market in this composite scenario. (Journal photo by Jennifer M. Latzke.)

Artificial insemination is a tried and true technology for many dairies. Historically, dairies bred all of their females to dairy bulls, raising the females as replacements for their herd, or selling them to other herds, and sending the males in to the beef stream as veal.

But with the advancement of science, herdsmen were then able to use sexed semen to give an edge to the number of bull or heifer calves produced, depending on the herd’s needs at the time. And then, someone along the way had a thought—why not use beef bulls on dairy cows that you know you don’t want to advance their genetics in your herd, and raise a calf that would be destined for a feedlot?

ABS Global is a bovine genetics company seeing an increase in dairies using sexed beef semen to breed their low genetic and low productive dairy cows in this scenario. According to the company’s literature, there are three advantages to the dairy. First, by proactively managing their replacement heifer inventory, the dairy reduces its costs and number of excess replacements. It costs to raise and freshen heifers, and if you have too many you wind up pushing out the profitable cows that are already in production to make room for them, according to the company’s literature.

Second, using terminal beef genetics on the lowest genetic merit animals, according to ABS, means the genetic level of the herd is raised. The more selective cattlemen are in choosing parents, according to ABS, the better their offspring will be. But by using beef semen on the lower performing females in the herd and dairy semen on the top females, the dairy farmer can make faster genetic advancements to his herd.

Finally, and most importantly for the $8.3 billion beef cattle industry in Kansas, the beef cross calves, or composite cattle, can be fed efficiently in the feedlot. Those composite cattle create another value stream for the dairy, outside of the milk check. But they also have value for feedlots, too.

Sounds simple, but there’s a lot of questions that have been and still need to be answered about the selection decisions and how these composite cattle will do on feed and on the rail. And Tom Jones of Hy-Plains Feedyard and Dr. Miles Theurer, DVM, of Veterinary Research and Consulting Services are working with many others like ABS and Texas Tech University to find those answers in a research project they’re calling “Product Development of the Composite Dairy Beef Cross Calves.”

Not just any beef bull will do

Jones works with Theurer and VRCS on many research projects at the Hy-Plains facility near Montezuma, Kansas, through its Hy-Plains Education and Research Center. In 2015 the yard started seeing more of these dairy-beef composite cattle coming into the feedlots from dairies in the High Plains region.

“We went into a partnership into researching these composite cattle, working hand-in-hand with ABS,” Theurer explained. “And we first started off learning that from a genetics side, not just any old beef bull is going to work here.” ABS sire and progeny tested many head of these composite cattle over the last five years, which were fed at Hy-Plains.

“From a visual standpoint, they started out looking more of a black-appearing Holstein,” Theurer said. “They had a very Holstein visual appearance in them. Today, you go by a pen of these, and it’s hard to tell there are Holstein crosses in there.”

Jones agreed and said that at first, when dairies were using muscular, high-growth bulls on their dairy cows, the calves wound up looking more like the dairy dams than the beef sires. There’s still a lot of trial-and-error into bull selection in these breeding scenarios, and that’s why ABS and others are conducting research with operations like Hy-Plains. But with every generation more data is collected, from the feedlot to the rail and beyond.

The major concern for Jones and many others is that these composite cattle must be consistent in order for the market to not be disrupted. As Jones explained, with five years of data collected from a packer that they work with, there’s still more to be done for consistency in these cattle.

“We were looking at quality grades in the 75 to 80% range, and into 90% every now and then, but then some of these bulls would throw a 67% Choice animal,” Jones said. “And we see dressing percentages all over the place.” The question then is—is it worth tinkering with what we know is dairy feedlot cattle’s strengths by adding in beef genetics?

Warren Rusche, South Dakota State University Beef Feedlot Management associate, wrote in June that dairy steers have had a key advantage over many beef breeds in North America because they have come from a more consistent gene pool.

“Dairy steers are more predictable for both feedlot performance and carcass characteristics,” Rusche wrote. “In particular, they generally grade well with a high percentage of Choice and Prime carcasses with less backfat.” And yet, Rusche also acknowledged that packers have concerns with dairy steer carcasses, because they lack muscling.

“The result is smaller rib eyes with a narrower shape that is less desired in some markets,” Rusche wrote. That smaller rib eye usually kicks dairy genetics out of branded beef programs, especially for the high-value middle meats like the rib and loin, he added.

Packers need consistency on the rail, whether the animal is a native beef calf, or a dairy calf, because the end customer demands it. And much of that consistency will start with the beef bulls that are selected to sire these composite calves, Jones warned.

“We have to make sure that we have the right product going in or we could hurt ourselves,” Jones said. Making calculated management decisions with the end market in mind rather than just choosing a random beef bull is how these composite cattle can actually add value to the dairy and the feedlot.

There’s debate about whether to use a Continental or Angus sire. Rusche wrote that, in his opinion, rather than focusing on a specific breed of bull to use on dairy cows, it would be wiser to determine the carcass objectives and then select the genetic inputs that will meet those goals.

Rusche writes that ultimately a particular beef bull in a crossbreeding system with dairy cows needs to meet these needs:

• Acceptable conception rate;

• Acceptable calving ease;

• Add muscling and rib eye area;

• For Holstein cows, moderate the skeletal size;

• For Jersey cows, add performance; and

• Maintain or add marbling.

“The first two criteria are absolute ‘must haves,’” Rusche wrote. Dairymen cannot afford reduced AI conception rates, or afford the troubles caused by calving difficulty. After that, the rest is “low-hanging fruit” in adding value to the dairy feeder cattle because it narrows the gap in carcass value between dairy and native cattle.

Feedlot performance

Theurer said in the feedlot the composite cattle do need added attention in some areas. For example, he said Hy-Plains has implemented an additional vaccine protocol for incoming dairy composite cattle that includes a leptospirosis vaccine.

Theurer said that while data is still being collected on the efficacy of this vaccine protocol, the thinking is that these composite cattle coming from dairies or calf ranches, have more curiosity than traditional beef cattle. They exhibit more licking behavior and the lepto vaccine is to protect them from that standpoint.

“From a management perspective, here in the feedyard, we’ve changed our implant program a little bit,” Theurer said. “We’re not as aggressive on implant strategy on these, a little more conservative on that side.” He added that from a feed efficiency standpoint, it appears that these composite cattle take more after their beef sires in feed conversions.

“Looking across our numbers from 2015 to just last week, the conversions are improving as we go along,” Jones said. “They still aren’t converting as good as the upper two-thirds of beef cattle are, but they are converting a lot better than a straight Holstein ever did.”

Theuer added that when you look at the sustainability angle, by producing more pounds of product through the supply chain on less feed, that requires less water and inputs to grow, there certainly could be benefits to be found with more research.

That’s a good thing to remember, because there are likely to be thousands of these cattle coming to feedlots in the next several years as dairies start using more beef semen on their lower producing cows. Theurer cautioned that there are many in the beef cow-calf business who are unhappy with the perceived added competition.

“I remind them, you were already competing against Holsteins in the yards,” he said. Dairies were always sending cattle into the beef supply, but the difference is now that they can now put more pounds on the plate with a composite calf versus a straight dairy calf.

The consumer

Ultimately, the real measure of any value to a composite calf is found on the plate. Consumer preferences are what packers market toward, and feedyards like Hy-Plains work to match those preferences. That’s what the industry has been doing for many decades.

“I think you can pull the top end of these cattle, the Prime out of these, and maybe you get a Prime with a small rib eye that could be a big seller in a high end market,” Jones said. He said that there’s been research into tenderness scores of dairy breeds versus beef breeds that show beef from dairy cattle can be tenderer. But the consumer and retailer have been told that dairy cattle are middle of the road at best.

He added that while the composite cattle may have a different shape to their primals and subprimals in the box, they’re likely going to be a good eating experience because of their marbling and their younger age.

Cheryl Ann Fairbairn, Penn State University Extension educator and Tara Felix, Penn State Extension beef specialist, write that Holstein steers have been bred with selection pressures for milk production and the use of genetically superior sires for milk production, and therefore their carcasses can be extremely uniform when fed out on grain. That carcass uniformity can fit in a box and marketed through the right channels to the right end market.

“However, because not all packers are purchasing these steers, Holstein fed cattle are often priced about $10 per hundredweight below prices paid for native fed cattle,” they wrote. And while dairy producers have seemingly fixed one problem by crossbreeding beef genetics into their composite feeder cattle, to get a higher price for them at the auction, the beef industry still has work to do to determine just which box these composites fit in—they aren’t Holsteins, and they aren’t native beef cattle either.

Theurer said that’s the next leg of this research project, collaborating with the National Cattlemens Beef Association and Texas Tech University to conduct red meat yield and muscle flavor profiling research.

“We need to see what they are truly producing and what that muscle will look like from a consumer aspect,” Theurer added. The research is ongoing and still in initial stages he cautioned.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or jlatzke@hpj.com.

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