The Pennsylvania Beef Producers Working Group has completed a careful study of a non-traditional feedlot approach for feeding Holstein beef calves, led by Dr. Tara Felix at the PDA Livestock Evaluation Center (LEC), Rock Springs, PA. “In a historical bull calf program, where you put the calves on pasture, it can take three years or so to raise them to harvestable size,” explained Dr. Felix, PSU Extension beef specialist.
“When you put native beef cattle on a high-energy diet like we’re using for these Holsteins being studied here, we’re looking nationwide at 18 to 20 months to harvest. Our goal with these Holstein calves is rapid growth and finish on a high-energy diet plus implants, with harvest with a similar target harvest age at 1400 pounds. We’re looking at a young calf with nice tender cuts for the consumer.”
The study discussed here is part one of a two-part study to determine how best to achieve that rapid growth, with maximum profits for the farmer. When calves were brought to the Livestock Evaluation Center for this study on April 21, 2016, the calves weighed about 550 pounds and consumed about 10 pounds of grain a day. All calves had dated ear tags showing they were a year old in August 2016.
“We stepped them up to a higher energy diet,” Felix continued. “The diet you see in their bunks today is about 20-22 pounds of dry cracked corn per day, about a 62 Mega-calorie diet.” The other components of these calves’ diets consist of corn silage, at 17 percent dry matter (or 30 percent wet), dried distiller’s grains with solubles (DDGS), some urea, and a mineral supplement, but the majority of their diet is dry corn. There is no hay in this diet, because we’re trying to maximize energy intake.”
The weight gain with these steers was rapid, about four pounds/day, with a 6.2 feed to gain conversion. But another factor in addition to the high-energy diet is needed to achieve this. That weight gain is also fueled by carefully timed implants. Without implants, if, for example, you were raising cattle for a natural beef market, “you would lose one-quarter to one-half pound of that gain per day,” compared to those calves that were implanted.
“These calves were implanted with Ralgro implants in Feb. 2016 before they arrived here. The Ralgro, a mild zeranol implant, still had a little payout left when they arrived here, which is one reason we waited 28 days after their arrival to give them their second implant, which was Encore. Encore, a mild estrogenic implant, has a really long window of activity, with 200-400 days pay out. We chose Encore because we wanted to make sure that we only have to implant them twice while they’re here at the LEC.
“They’re gaining very well. They’ve been on feed 112 days, and they weigh approximately 1050 pounds. In order to reach a finish weight of 1400 pounds in 17 months, these calves will be re-implanted with Component TE-S in about two weeks.”
The hormone implants are the reason, Felix explained, why the calves that tour members viewed had a slightly different shape from most Holsteins. “The Holstein muscling is a very flat muscle across the back. We’re trying to round that muscle to look more like a steak you’d see in the grocery store. These implants will target muscle development and make these muscles grow just a little rounder.”
An Ag Progress Days tour member questioned, “Do the hormones in the implants pass into the meat?”
“I love this question,” replied Tara Felix, “because it is a crucial one. Do you know what a nanogram is? It is a billionth of a gram. It’s written with nine zeroes in front of it. A three-oz. serving of steak from a non-implanted animal would have 1.6 nanograms of estrogenic activity. For an implanted steer, that three ounces would have 1.9 nanograms. A steak from a heifer calf would have five times as much estrogenic activity, even if she’s not implanted, because of her natural physiology. But if I drink a glass of milk, I’d raise that amount 10 times. Consider too, that if I’d eat one serving of tofu, I’d get over a million times the estrogenic activity that I’d get from the three-oz. implanted steak!”
Cost of gain on these animals is comparable to feedlot native steers, partly because the staff at the PDA Livestock Evaluation Center is very attentive in their care of them. “They keep fresh feed in front of them at all times, and they watch them closely, so they can take care of any small problems when they first arise.”
In the hot mid-August weather, the calves were fed twice a day. “The bulk of our feeding now takes place in the afternoon. Then at night, when it starts to cool down, these calves will consume a little more than in the heat of the day.
“These steers are not, and will not be, as tall or as ‘framy’ as a Holstein cow. What we’re trying to do is feed a high-energy diet from birth to harvest so that we’re feeding predominately muscle development, and not feeding just frame. We’re trying to get 59 percent yield by feeding for more muscle and less frame and heavy bone.
In an introduction to Felix’s presentation, Cheryl Fairbairn, PSU Extension Livestock Team, pointed out some things we would NOT see or learn on this tour of older animals. “There is nothing that affects the profitability of a calf-fed beef operation more than keeping every calf alive.” She believes the best way to do that is to buy all your calves from a single source, rather than picking them up individually from a number of farms.
“Buying all your calves from a single source makes management easier when calves are young. Buying from a number of sources means the calves will need more management to get them acclimated,” to each other, to your operation, and to the ‘bugs’ they may be carrying, “although a lot of producers do this quite successfully.
“Second,” continued Fairbairn, “use only a quality milk replacer. The calves will stay healthier, and if your milk replacer doesn’t have all the ingredients the calf really needs, your calves could weigh only 300 to 400 pounds when they could have been 500 to 600 pounds.”
After the animals were slaughtered in November 2016 at about 1400 pounds, some interesting data emerged. Out of the 44 animals, 38 of them qualified as USDA Choice when they were slaughtered at only 15 months (having reached the target weight very quickly). The carcasses of 33 of the animals (which as a group dressed out at an average of 58.9 percent — mighty close to the target of 59 percent). obtained USDA yield grades of 1 or 2, with no Yield Grade 4 carcasses. Rib eye areas averaged 12.2-inches for the 44 head.
These results helped to allay some industry concerns over the use of implants and their effects on meat quality. The feed conversion ratio, at 7:1, was better than anticipated. The excellent results obtained were partly attributable to the extremely attentive care they received at the PDA Livestock Evaluation Center. Also, the calves arrived well started, with no health issues.
“These calves outperformed our expectations,” stated Felix.
Interest in Holstein beef has been high among producers. A Statewide field day last December attracted about 60 attendees from 27 different counties in PA, and follow-up regional programs were held through last spring.