by Sally Colby

Dr. Tara Felix, beef Extension specialist, Penn State, addressed a group of cattle feeders on the topic of feeding dairy cross animals. She started the discussion with background on why U.S. dairy farmers have been breeding dairy cows with beef semen.

“We are unique in the U.S. in that we have a separation in beef and dairy system,” said Felix. “In most European or Middle Eastern countries, there is no beef herd. There are dual purpose breeds because their industries are based on producing milk from cows and beef from the progeny.”

Felix said the U.S. has always had a fairly consistent, fairly high demand for good quality beef while Europeans fill the beef niche with other proteins. Felix added that the beef-from-dairy discussion is becoming more relevant because historically, byproduct bull calves were for the veal market.

“In the U.S., the veal market is essentially nil,” said Felix. “We are not as a nation consuming nearly as much veal as we did in the 1960s, and there are a lot of reasons for that. One is there are more women at work and we spend less time preparing meals at home.”

Without veal calves entering the market, Holsteins started to fill the demand for beef. Felix said audits done by the NCBA help determine the beef supply chain, observing quality grade, carcass size and other predictors of the beef supply. “One of the things they pay attention to is hide color,” she said. “The U.S. preference for Angus is noted in the National Beef Quality Audit. The U.S. has always had high demand for black hide, in part due to the Certified Angus Beef (CAB) program, which is one of the largest nonprofit organizations in the United States and one of the most recognized brands globally.”

However, none of the criteria for the CAB program are related to Angus genetics – the most important factor for CAB is hide color, which is why the majority of carcass hides in the U.S. are black.

“From 2011 to 2016, which was the last National Beef Quality Audit, we had about a 400% increase in the number of Holsteins going into the beef supply chain,” said Felix. “This is cattle on feed, which means cattle placed in a feedlot and finished at a young age and not cull cows or cull bulls. In 2016, we were finishing a large number of Holstein calves to meet beef demand in the U.S.” Felix added that in 2011, the West experienced a severe drought resulting in severe beef cow culling and a drop in the national beef herd.

“In 2003 we had 35 million beef cows; in 2011 we were down around 31 million head,” said Felix, adding that the 31 million head was the lowest number of beeves the U.S. has seen since the 1980s when there was a major beef cow recession. By 2016, the beef cow herd was on the upswing.

However, while that beef cow recession was occurring, supply and demand did not waver. Felix attributed this in part due to cattlemen meeting demand by increasing the size of beef cattle carcasses, with a 920-pound carcass currently representing the national average.

“The other way we met demand was feeding out a lot of Holsteins,” said Felix. “From a feeder perspective, the Holsteins brought something awesome: consistency. The feedlot loves consistency because the packer loves consistency, and ultimately the feedlot has to provide what the packer wants.”

Most U.S. beef must fit in a box for shipping nationally and internationally. Felix said this year, about 20% of the beef produced in the U.S. was shipped to other countries because we are the top beef-producing nation in the world. “Holsteins have their own ‘box’ and native cattle (traditional beef breeds) have their own ‘box,’” she said. “Part of the challenge with beef on dairy is which box do they fit in?”

For many feeders, handling and feeding Holstein crosses was different than feeding native beef cattle. Because of the way they’re raised, crosses are generally easy to work with. “They’re uniform, and whatever we have done to select Holsteins for milk production we’ve inherently selected for marbling potential as well,” said Felix. “Also, when you put an animal on a high grain diet for 400 days, they marble well. We have known since the 1980s that grain promotes marbling, and when you feed grain early and often, you get good marbling.”

Another benefit with dairy crosses is fewer respiratory issues in the feedlot due to being immunized from birth. Potential health challenges are worked out when calves are young, so by the time they’re on feed, they’re past most illness and don’t require treatment while in the feedlot. Holsteins also benefit calf feeders because historically, Holstein calves have been undervalued as a byproduct of the dairy industry.

Felix reviewed some negatives about Holsteins including the fact that due to early and frequent handling by people, they don’t move like beef cattle. Many feeders have had to adjust handling techniques, and in some cases, alter barn layouts. “Holsteins are curious and if they’re bored, they chew wooden barns,” she said. “A number of beef feeders have noted having to wrap poles to keep wood barns intact.”

Holsteins have higher feed intake and increased nutrient requirements compared to native beef cattle breeds, which means more days on feed. “Feedlots make their money on days on feed,” said Felix. “On average, most native beef calves are only in the feedlot 160 to 180 days. That means we can get two turns in the feedlot in a year.” This shorter turnaround is a benefit because there’s an increased number of animals to spread all the costs, from electricity to equipment, and net profit goes up with reduced days on feed.

Felix said the industry worked to overcome longer feeding periods but then Holstein prices tanked. “In 2017, Tyson said ‘no more Holsteins,’” she said. “We were rebuilding the beef cow herd, so there was more supply of beef cows and demand for Holsteins began to drop.”

The dairy industry responded by turning all those calves black. “In 2018 we saw a 58% increase in the sale of beef semen units in the U.S.,” said Felix, noting the biggest ever increase in beef semen sales. “We don’t actually use much semen in native beef – we still rely predominately on live cover other than for seedstock operations.” Felix added that in 2017, 2.5 million units of beef semen were sold in the U.S.; in 2018 the number jumped to four million units; and in 2020, 7.1 million units were sold – and the increases were due to semen used on dairy cows.