Low prices push dairy farmers to beef market
HERSHEY, Pa. — Low prices for milk coupled with low cull cow prices plus costs prompt dairy farmers to consider the beef market. Also, the decline in veal demand due to changing consumer trends has curtailed the use of male dairy calves for veal.
At the recent Dairy Cattle Nutrition Workshop by Penn State, beef expert Dr. Tara Felix offered strategies for feeding Holstein steers or crossbreds to finish for beef.
Dairy beef now accounts for about 20 percent of the fed cattle market, Dr. Felix reported. She adds that it represents a four-fold increase in less than a decade.
Dairy breeds have been bred for milk production. Consequently, a significant drawback to dairy beef is its rib eye. As a flat muscle breed, a Holstein rib eye cut doesn’t have the top rounded shape and marbling like a beef breed’s cut. The rib eye from a dairy breed looks like a NY strip steak. And, beef enthusiasts equate the rib eye with superior quality.
Dr. Felix outlined several steps producers can take to profitably raise dairy beef.
One of the first lessons she stressed is the need for grain in the diet, not forage. In one trial report she noted, “I discourage my producers from thinking that forage is their cheapest diet. You don’t want to finish these cattle at 24 or 25 months. We want them on grain early to encourage lean tissue growth rather than bone and frame growth.”
In addition to diet, she recommends the ionophores, beta-agonists and implants technologies as well.
In another of her several trials with Holstein steers, after 10 lbs. of grain per head, she transitioned them to corn, silage, distillers dried grain with solubles, and minerals.
The selection of the beef sire can have a great impact on the marketability and profitability of the resulting crossbred offspring.
Dr. Felix recognized Dr. Bob Hough’s work at Penn State in which he remarked that too many dairy producers’ first choice of semen for breeding their low-end cows was cheap Angus semen. That helped with the feeding phase, he said, but the conformation of the calves had not been enough to avoid the dairy steer discount at the packing plant. He suggested structured planned breeding programs to produce profitable feeder cattle, not “just another black bull.”
Interestingly, while dairy semen sales are still higher than beef semen, dairy peaked in 2015 and has been stagnating since. Domestic beef semen sales grew almost 60 percent last year, and reportedly dairy farmers have been purchasing nearly all that beef semen. In addition, part of the increase was due to genomic testing.
Dr. Felix noted that the feedlots are looking for improved feed efficiency, decreased days on feed because they make money on turns, and something that the packers want. She said the feed ratio for beef is about 7:1 (7 lbs. of feed per 1 lb. of gain), and the turns are usually two.
How calves perform in the feedlot vary. Dr. Felix noted a Kempster et al., 1982 study that calves sired by British breed bulls may actually be at a disadvantage compared to Holsteins. Also, she pointed to a Huuskonen et al., 2013 report that found that crossbreds from Aberdeen Angus and Hereford bulls can be extremely variable.
Packers want desirable characteristics for processing efficiency and meat quality. Numerous genetics are being developed.
Dr. Felix cited the drivers of crossbreeding from the dairy side include steady cow numbers, lots of heifers, stagnant/declining milk prices, and increasing milk production that requires fewer replacements. The drivers from the beef side are the lack of packer access. For example, when Tyson quit buying Holstein steers in 2017, there was a $20 to $25 cwt drop in basis nearly overnight. Another driver is the continued demand for beef, especially high-quality and high-yielding.
Penn State has numerous articles on dairy beef, including marketing, nutrition, management and budgeting. Many can be accessed at https://extension.psu.edu/dairy-beef-production.
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