Breeding dairy cattle to beef sires has become a fairly common practice on dairy farms for a variety of reasons, including better quality beef from animals that aren’t needed as dairy replacements. But what are the consequences for packers and consumers?

Dale Woerner, endowed professor, Department of Animal and Food Sciences, Texas Tech University, discussed his work with beef x dairy crossbreds in relation to packer and consumer acceptance.

Funding from beef Checkoff, partnerships with ABS and cooperation among several feedlots and Cargill facilities facilitated a study of red meat yield and cut-out differences among various breed crosses as well as conventional beef and straight dairy steers.

“We harvest around 25.5 million head of fed cattle each year,” said Woerner. “These are steers and heifers coming out of feedlots, hanging on the rail and graded for retail sale and foodservice sales. Traditionally, between 18% and 20% of those cattle have originated on a dairy and have a dairy dam.”

While the predominant breed type and phenotype of animals coming from a dairy has been Holstein steers, industry changes have led to more beef crossbreds.

“We noticed big changes in 2017 and 2018 prompted by a sharp signal by the packers in the U.S. indicating through large discounts or refusing to buy purebred Holstein steers,” said Woerner. “At that point in the market, packers had plentiful supplies to pull from fed cattle and had reasons to not accept Holstein steers including lack of red meat yield as well as issues with liver abscesses.”

In response, dairymen sought new market opportunities with beef-sired calves from dairies. There was a notable increase in sales of beef semen to dairy farms as sales of dairy semen dropped.

“Dairy and beef cattle are different,” said Woerner. “Conventional beef cattle have superior and quicker growth rates when it comes to feedlot finishing, they have better gut health and fewer liver abscesses, produce carcasses that have higher dressing percentages based on superior conformation, superior muscling and greater muscle to bone ratios. They also have a greater steak shape – it’s more round and symmetrical and ultimately more appealing to the consumer. They also produce a brighter, more cherry red lean meat than the purebred Holstein.”

Dairy cattle offer genetic consistency and smaller diameter muscle fibers which contribute to tenderness and greater marbling capacity. Dairy animals also have superior external trimness, and research suggests they produce more flavorful beef than conventional cattle.

Feedlot performance is important for many beef producers. Woerner noted the study compared conventional beef cattle to crossbreds and found similar days on feed status and average daily gains, although crossbred cattle performed much closer to conventional cattle compared to Holsteins. In general, crossbreds have improved feed efficiency compared to straight Holsteins and perform close to conventional beef.

Dairy x beef crosses have lower dressing percentages than conventional beef cattle, which means slightly lighter carcasses. Most of the difference is due to leaner cattle, a positive carcass trait. For quality grade performance, which is the amount of marbling and eating quality, dairy x beef crosses perform as well as or better than conventional cattle.

“One of the biggest takeaways for marketing is simply due to increased feed efficiency in comparison to the traditional Holstein,” said Woerner. “We have created a sustainability message. We’ve taken 20% of the fed beef population and improved them from a greenhouse gas and total CO2 standpoint.”

Greater feed efficiency and greater average daily gains and shorter days on feed ultimately translates to CO2 reduction. Woerner reported that total CO2 was reduced from 2,255 kg to 1,489 kg on an as-fed, predicted CO2 emission basis. So despite not being quite as good as conventional beef cattle in feed conversion, crossbreds are a step ahead compared to traditional Holsteins.

“Crossbreds are leaner than conventional beef but are slightly fatter than traditional Holsteins,” said Woerner. “They produce intermediate size ribeye areas and more internal fat but are superior to conventional beef in marbling scores. These crossbred cattle produce superior, more desirable yield grades than conventional cattle.”

Due to their leanness, crossbreds have lower numerical yield grades, suggesting their carcasses are producing higher cutability cuts that require less excess fat trim.

Regarding predicted eating quality, Woerner said on average, Holsteins are the most tender cattle in the fed cattle population. “The conventional cattle in the comparison to Holstein crosses and conventionals are producing the toughest beef,” he said. “Beef on dairy crosses are intermediate in tenderness and improved over traditional cattle.”

All dairy-influenced cattle, both crossbreds and traditional Holsteins, have superior flavor performance according to trained sensory evaluators. “They produce a more desirable and increased fat-like flavor as well as a buttery beef fat flavor in cuts,” said Woerner. “These two drivers are the most positively associated flavors with higher quality beef.”

One of the biggest findings was the change in color performance by using crossbred cattle in comparison to Holstein cattle. “Traditionally, conventional beef had superior color performance over that of Holsteins, to the point where Holstein beef could not be sold in combination with conventional beef,” said Woerner. “Holstein beef is darker colored and has a shorter color stability/shelf life than that of conventional beef. However, crossbreds perform closer to and similar to that of conventional cattle, meaning we can now comingle or co-sell crossbred cattle with conventional beef.”

This is a huge change for the industry. In the past, retailers sold Holstein product exclusively or conventional product exclusively because when the two products were comingled, consumers chose the conventional product. Now, rather than having to segregate Holstein beef in a retail setting, crossbred beef can be sold with conventional beef.

One concern related to dairy x beef production is that of shape and appearance of middle meat steaks including T-bones, sirloins, filets and strips. “New York strip steaks from Holstein steers presented issues for consumers and retailers in that steaks were smaller in overall surface area and more angular and narrow,” said Woerner. “The native beef population produces the largest, roundest and most symmetrical steak shapes.”

One discovery through extensive measurements and surveying steaks throughout middle meats of beef x dairy crossbreds compared to the other two populations is that consumers don’t have the ability to distinguish between beef x dairy crossbred steaks and native beef steaks.

“This issue has been resolved by breeding to beef bulls,” said Woerner. “We no longer have to worry about steak shape issues with crossbreds compared to conventional beef.”

by Sally Colby