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Assessing the progression of beef-on-dairy practices

Bruce Derksen for Progressive Cattle Published on 25 April 2022
Cattle at the feedbunk

In recent years, dairy producers in the U.S. have increased their use of beef semen on their dairy cows to raise male offspring profitability and manage replacement heifers.

Beef semen sales have increased from 2.54 million doses in 2017 to 7.2 million doses in 2020. This closely mirrors the reduction of dairy semen sales from 23.2 million doses in 2017 to 18.3 million doses in 2020 (NAAB, 2021).

A paradigm shift

Mike De Groot, founding partner of TD Beef and the director of the TD Beef program for Select Sires, says there’s been a paradigm shift driven by feedyards and packers discounting cattle not hitting the correct mark.

“The reality is: About 50 percent of a dairy’s production has always been beef,” he says. “They were just black-and-white steers, but they were still aimed at the beef market. Now, dairies are transitioning this level closer to what the feedyards and packers want.”

He clarifies these two entities are comfortable with Holstein “beef,” as it’s predictable and they know what they’re getting when purchasing.

“Early in the ‘beef-on-dairy’ trend, farmers were creating a black hide, but little emphasis was placed on genetic profiles. They weren’t predictable. The result was: Packers didn’t know what they had until they pulled the hide back. Then, it’s too late.”

De Groot says TD Beef adds predictability by purchasing day-old dairy calves from those they supply genetics to, then delivering them to partnering ranches in New Mexico and Texas. Once there, they’re raised responsibly to 400 to 600 pounds, after which they’re transitioned to feedyards.

Adding consistency and traceability

“The narrative has been, ‘Use this stick of semen and everything else will fall into place.’ That’s important but only one part of the puzzle. Genetics is also heavily dependent on nutrition and environment. Our partnerships allow us to feed these animals in a way conducive to their best performance while asking ‘What are we seeing downstream and what can we do differently?’”

He explains TD Beef creates 3,000 to 4,000 cattle meeting a specific profile favoring all parties within the supply chain. Their genetics complement aspects from conception and birthweight at the dairy to yearling weight at the ranch. Closed-loop system genetics target cutability and ribeye shape, muscling and marbling. A partnership with Select Sires provides the desired TD Beef genetics and traceability capabilities. Approximately 250 herds in 14 states representing 450,000 milk cows share data of pregnancy check predictions, types and monthly volume.

“We believe this is the future regarding beef-on-dairy, where everything about these animals is known. We’re telling the story of our products. The consumer demands this information.”

From a dairy operator’s perspective, De Groot thinks as much effort should be placed on the genetics and traits of animals entering the beef supply chain as is focused on cattle destined for the dairy barn.

“Holsteins, although predictable, aren’t as sustainable as the black-hided calves. It’s a ‘rising tides lift all boats’ situation when the supply chain collaborates, offering both value and sustainability. Black-hided animals eat less and convert more than their Holstein counterparts. We shouldn’t sacrifice sustainability for predictability. They’re not mutually exclusive.”

Growing the practice

Andrew Sandeen, extension dairy educator at Penn State Extension, also believes beef-on-dairy practices are continuing to grow. Most dairy farmers in Pennsylvania are using beef to some extent, and he knows this isn’t unique to his area.

“Countrywide, the vast majority of dairy operations are using at least some beef semen in their herds,” he says. “There’s been a shift from simply grabbing some Angus semen to becoming more thoughtful with the entire process.”

He emphasizes the beef industry is enforcing their specific needs and expectations regarding beef variability. Farmers are becoming more careful, selecting bulls focusing on what makes sense for a particular region in both the short and long term.

“They’re pretty happy with how they’ve been paid, but there’s the realization this needs to work well in the long run to continue receiving the financial benefits.”

JBS beef plant buyers have relayed that their strategies were developed around straight Holstein beef consistency – but with increasing numbers of beef-on-dairy crosses, variability plays a larger role.

“It’s a bit of a struggle for our dairy operators,” he said. “Everything from the quality to the shape and size – it’s all over the board.”

Optimal traits and longevity of the practice

Sandeen outlines some of the more common genetic traits being pursued include calving ease, ribeye size and stature.

He describes calving ease as an interesting debate, with most breeds featuring comprehensive trait addressing indexes. Concern varies, but he believes it’s still a trait with more direct benefit to the dairy farmer than the end product.

Ribeye quality appears to be the most-sought-after trait, as producers and genetic companies seek to increase its size and shape to improve carcasses.

Stature has also become more popular, as dairy breeds already have more height and leg than the beef industry wants.

“We don’t want to make them even larger-framed by selecting a tall beef bull, so guarding against excessive height adds value.”

Sandeen urges those interested in either adding or continuing beef-on-dairy practices to discuss recommendations and options with genetic suppliers. Consideration should be given to direction-influencing decisions and what makes sense for specific operations.

Additionally, he says it’s prudent to speak with regional or area buyers, plus those operating niche markets, to understand what they see as important. What works well in one area may not be optimal in another.

De Groot agrees and reinforces the fact that the number of dairy animals reaching the beef market doesn’t really change when a beef-on-dairy process is used.

“There’s a demand for better-quality, more sustainable, more marketable meat, and the dairyman can now control this in a way that suits everyone,” he stressed. “It’s a win-win for the dairy, feedlot, packer – and even the consumer when we get this right.”  end mark

PHOTO: Dairy producers have noted that black-hided animals tend to eat less and convert more than their Holstein counterparts. Photo by Andrew Sandeen.

Bruce Derksen is a freelance writer based in Lacombe, Alberta.