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Genetic tools help dairies build the beef supply

J. Benton Glaze Jr. for Progressive Cattle Published on 25 October 2021
Calves at the feedbunk

The major and most recognized product produced by dairies is milk. In 2020, U.S. dairies produced 218,411 million pounds of milk, and Idaho dairies contributed 15,632 million pounds to the total production.

Once the milk is processed, it is enjoyed by consumers as fluid milk, ice cream, cheese and a variety of other products.

One product from dairies that is sometimes overlooked is beef. However, the contributions the dairy industry makes to the beef industry cannot go unnoticed. According to a recent report, approximately 21% of the beef produced in the U.S. comes from the dairy sector.

To gain some perspective of where the U.S. beef supply comes from, consider the following. In total for 2019, there were 27.3 billion pounds of beef produced in the U.S., of which 51.2% was derived from steers, 28.2% from heifers, 19% from cull cows and 1.7% from bulls. Of the total 27.3 billion pounds, 13.4% came from dairy steers, 9.7% from dairy cows and 0.1% from dairy heifers. Clearly, the dairy sector is a major contributor to the beef industry.

Growing trends

Generally, contributions from the dairy sector to the beef industry have been thought of as coming primarily from cull dairy cows and bulls which represent non-fed beef. Non-fed beef is defined as animals that go directly from the producer to the harvest facility without going through the feedlot phase of the beef industry.

What might be a surprise to some is that the numbers show that the greatest contribution from the dairy sector comes from dairy steers, which represent fed beef (animals placed in a feedlot until harvest time).

In recent years, there has been quite a bit of interest in using beef sires (semen) on dairy females to produce crossbred animals that would ultimately end up in beef market channels. The extent to which this practice has grown is evidenced in the results of a 2020 study that chronicled the frequency of inseminations between beef bull breeds and dairy cow breeds.

From 2012 to 2015, 111,515 inseminations of dairy cows with beef breed semen were recorded. From 2016 to 2019, that number increased to 277,952. With the increased use of beef semen on dairy females, a need arose in regard to selecting the best beef sires for use with dairy cows.

At the 2020 Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) Research Symposium and Convention, selection indexes that assist producers in selecting Angus sires for use on dairy cows were described and discussed. In the fall of 2020, the American Angus Association introduced Angus-On-Dairy $Value Indexes, which are bioeconomic selection indexes that allow simultaneous changes to occur in traits related to beef-dairy crossbreeding objectives.

The two Angus-On-Dairy indexes currently available are the Angus-On-Holstein ($AxH) index and the Angus-On-Jersey ($AxJ) index. These indexes estimate how the beef-dairy crossbred progeny from one Angus sire is expected to perform, on average, compared to the beef-dairy crossbred progeny from other Angus sires. The indexes and estimates assume the sires were randomly mated to a group of cows and the progeny were exposed to the same environmental conditions.

Through the years, as dairy animals have made their way through beef marketing and harvest channels, they have at times received negative critiques or price discounts. This has been due in part to the fact that the dairy animals do not match up to the beef animals in terms of beef production and quality. Some areas that could be improved on dairy animals through crossbreeding include growth rates, feed conversion, conformation, carcass size and muscle shape.

Index comparisons

A concern that arose from the dairy side when considering the use of beef bulls was calving ease. As these issues were identified, traits and their associated economic weighting factors were chosen to be included in the indexes. These inclusions allow potential improvements to be made in the areas noted as Angus sires are used on dairy females. Traits used in the $AxH index include calving ease, growth, feed intake, dressing percent, yield grade, quality grade, muscling and height. The $AxJ index includes the same traits except for height.

The $AxH index is expressed in dollars per head and predicts the average difference in value of a sire’s crossbred (Angus X Holstein) progeny compared to the value of another sire’s crossbred (Angus X Holstein) progeny. Larger index values indicate greater value of a sire’s progeny.

An example of how $AxH indexes are used and interpreted follows: In a comparison of two Angus bulls being considered for use on Holstein cows, it is noted that Bull 1 has a $AxH index value of +128 and Bull 2 has a $AxH index value of +98. This suggests that the progeny produced from a mating of Bull 1 with Holstein cows would have $30-per-head greater value than progeny produced from a mating of Bull 2 with Holstein cows.

The $AxJ index is expressed in dollars per head and predicts the average difference in value of a sire’s crossbred (Angus x Jersey) progeny compared to the value of another sire’s crossbred (Angus x Jersey) progeny. Larger index values indicate greater value of a sire’s progeny. An example of how $AxJ indexes are used and interpreted follows: In a comparison of two Angus bulls being considered for use on Jersey cows, it is noted that Bull 3 has a $AxJ index value of -14 and Bull 4 has a $AxJ index value of +34. This suggests that the progeny produced from a mating of Bull 4 with Jersey cows would have $48-per-head greater value than progeny produced from a mating of Bull 3 with Jersey cows.

These new selection indexes give producers an opportunity to select Angus bulls for use on Holstein or Jersey cows. The indexes offer options for producers to select Angus sires with the genetic potential in the index traits that will complement the genetics of dairy cows. In other words, producers have a means to select beef sires that will enhance some of the inferior beef production and quality characteristics in dairy cows and produce progeny that have the potential to improve an operation’s bottom line. end mark

J. Benton Glaze Jr.
  • J. Benton Glaze Jr.

  • Extension Beef Cattle Specialist
  • Animal, Veterinary and Food Science
  • University of Idaho
  • Email J. Benton Glaze Jr.

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