Entering the Dairy Beef Market - Is It For You?

Published on Tue, 09/15/2020 - 8:54am

Entering the Dairy Beef Market - Is It For You?

 By Jaclyn Krymowski.

 Changes in the economy and milk market lead many dairy producers to seek additional streams of income within their operations. Raising unwanted bull calves on farm as dairy beef feeders and finished steers certainly isn’t a new idea. Data out there will tell you dairy beef steers make up about 15 to 20% of animals sent to market. The numbers also indicate it is a continually rising sector within the beef industry. This shouldn’t be too surprising, it isn’t uncommon for Holstein steers to end up on the feedlot level, not to mention their widespread presence in youth ag programs. Notably, with the rise of beef on dairy breeding and renewed interest in local protein sources, there has never been a time with more resources and opportunities to turn on farm dairy beef production into a viable side hustle.

This endeavor is a brand-new territory for many producers, and it does require some rethinking on how bull calves are raised. But it need not be an intimidating change to make. If you have the resources and the perseverance, there is room for lots of success in this area.
What does your setup allow?
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to raising or marketing steers on a dairy. Some farms have found success in retaining their bull or cull heifer calves to around 800 lbs. when they are feedlot ready, making them more attractive to individual or sale barn buyers. Others go the full nine yards and raise their animals all the way to finishing weight utilizing cheap feedstuffs. Not only can fat steers be sold directly to buyers or custom packers, there is also the opportunity to capitalize on the niche of direct to consumer marketing via freezer beef.
Some considerations you will need to look into are facilities and space for these animals, including how much your farm can realistically handle. If you are planning to finish animals, you could very well be looking at a 12 to 16-month long commitment. And of course, feeding program is enormously important.  There has been some research into different diets that work well on dairy breeds specifically, but if you are someplace like the New England states with ample pasture and several marketing outlets you could go as simple as grassfed.
Finally, part of what your dairy beef capabilities are depends of course on your dairy herd. Holsteins and Jerseys especially have several commendable meat quality characteristics. Likewise, Brown Swiss are also very efficient from a production and feed standpoint. Straight bred Holsteins do struggle with frame being a bit too big at finishing weight than is preferred, but they do marble quite well when fed correctly. Straight bred Jerseys are also known for their high marbling and flavor, but conversely their frame is too small while being inefficient converters of feed to meat.
You certainly can do dairy beef quite well on Holsteins and Swiss even without a beef sire. Purebred Jerseys won’t do nearly so well unless you have individual buyers lined up specifically wanting Jersey meat. However, breeding your low-end cows to beef bulls can greatly enhance value across all breeds.

Rethinking your calves
If you think dairy beef might be a good fit for you, the next step is to rethink how you are raising your bull calves. You may want to take a further step back yet and think about your breeding.
If you are vested in sexed semen, think more critically about what you are breeding your lower-end animals to. Straight conventional dairy semen can be fine, but you need to take into account some of the meat quality disadvantages these bulls (and heifers) will have. Using conventional beef semen on these animals is a surefire way to increase value in their offspring immediately. Now adays there are lots of options for beef sires specifically for beef on dairy breeding. In fact, Angus Genetics Inc. recently released entirely new sire indexes to aid in the selection for Jersey or Holstein crosses. Such crosses can tremendously increase the value of your calves whether you’re selling on the hoof or on the rail.
Do your research and see what’s a desirable mix with your breed. A lot of beef associations have been working in the dairy world to help connect dairy producers with beef sires that complement their breeds.
Once you have a live calf on the ground, getting them off to the best start in the way your heifer replacements are is important. A lot of dairies don’t stress their bull or cull heifer calves getting the high-quality colostrum, supplements and other processing details. You need to prioritize a strong start the same you would for any other animal you retain, and that all begins with passive immunity. Likewise, you want to encourage the same careful, proper rumen development as you would in your replacements. This includes offering high quality grains early in life so that they will be ready to wean quickly and properly, moving into the feeding stage with ease.

Other management strategies
There are a lot of ways to make or break your management of beef animals. Naturally nutrition is a pretty big cornerstone of that. Obviously, the diet needs to be affordable and fit nicely into what you’re already feeding.
There is a strong argument to be made for an importance of emphasizing grain instead of cheaper forage if you want your steers to finish like beef animals. Early access to grain will encourage more lean, muscular tissue growth instead of energy going towards bone and frame. Grain doesn’t necessarily need to just be cheap corn (though it could be), you can also look at incorporating dried and wet distiller’s grains and other feed components you are already using in your cow ration. See what beef producers are feeding in your area and get ideas for how to shape your ration.
Implanting dairy beef animals is another way to score a bit of additional gain with more efficiency. Marketed towards beef animals, these hormonal implants have shown successful in dairy feeders. One study found implanted dairy beef steers finished at an average of 1,371 lbs. (plus or minus 144 lbs.) while a group of non-implanted steers finished at an average of 1,282 lbs. (plus or minus 79 lbs.). These implants are also great tools to improve the ribeye area of dairy animals to make them more comparable of what you’d get from traditional beef breeds. If you want to go down the feedlot route, this is something to seriously consider.
With all the impressive breeding we’ve done for milk output, it’s easy to forget the tremendous potential our dairy breeds have for quality beef products. In today’s market where we have so many consumers eager to support local producers and try something new, it seems the stage is set to put those unwanted bulls and heifers to use. With a little homework and some deliberate thought processes, you can make dairy beef a part of your farm’s business plan more easily than ever.