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Record prices for beef cattle and declining corn prices have resulted in increased use of dairy breeds for finished beef production. When the beef hits the plate, there are few differences in the taste or palatability of the product compared to conventional beef breeds, but the production process has some distinctive differences.
In most cases, dairy calves are removed from the dam at birth or shortly after. Colostrum intake is essential to the health of the newborn dairy calf, as it is for any other breeds. Milk replacers are the primary source of nutrition for the next four to seven weeks of life. This step in dairy beef production is critical to success, as the challenges to the health of the calf are substantial and include pneumonia, scours and coccidiosis.
The most effective production systems for the dairy beef calf are veal production facilities that specialize in feeding and handling the very young calf. There is usually little weight gain during this phase, so keeping the calf alive and getting to the point of starting on grain feeds is the goal.
Growing and finishing
Dairy beef calves should be fed high-grain diets for a year or more after the starting phase, usually composed of 90 percent corn or more. There are some biological reasons dairy breeds respond best to high-grain diets. First, dairy breeds have a higher maintenance requirement than conventional beef breeds. Maintenance is the feed intake "overhead" for cattle that keeps the animal breathing, the heart pumping, feed digested, and the body at the right temperature.
Maintenance feed requirements are based on animal weight, but are influenced by the relative amount of gut weight to total body weight. Since dairy breeds generally have less body muscle, there is more gut weight and body surface area relative to total body weight. This increases maintenance feed requirements for dairy breeds by 3 to 5 percent compared to conventional breeds. Feeding high-grain diets helps to overcome the higher maintenance needs by concentrating more energy in the diet, resulting in faster growth, more muscle growth, and more fat accumulation as marbling and external fat.
Research (House, 1992) has shown that adding corn silage to the diet at 20 percent or less of total dry matter will result in acceptable gains and carcass quality, but adding haylage at 20 percent of the diet dry matter reduced animal performance and carcass quality. A study from Comerford et al. (2001) clearly indicated that grazing of supplemented and unsupplemented Holstein steers reduced animal performance and carcass quality.
Dairy steers are generally not suited to grass-based production systems. The lower average daily gain and higher maintenance requirement will negatively impact the economics of a grass-based production system, as the most important economic factor of these systems is annual beef produced per acre of land (Steinberg and Comerford, 2009).
Holsteins and other dairy breeds will have lower dressing percentages (-3 to 5 percent) and smaller rib eye area (-10 percent) than conventional breeds, but marbling scores will be similar at the same compositional end point (House, 1992).
Results from the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (1992) show that Jersey cattle may have higher marbling scores at the same compositional end point compared to most other breeds. A study from Mills et al. (1992) has shown that palatability of fed Holstein steers is very acceptable, and consumer panels rate tenderness, flavor and overall acceptability at the same level as conventional beef breeds.
The economics of a dairy beef feeding program are characterized by the price of beef relative to the price of corn, since the cattle are fed high-grain diets for an extended period of time. Other features of the system include:
- Lower incoming price for the newborn calf.
- Lower average daily weight gains for life.
- Lower dressing percentage of the carcass, since they generally have less external fat, more bone and more gut weight.
- Rib eye area is smaller and narrow in shape, which does not allow them access to some premium markets.
- Carcass quality grades are very acceptable.
- Because of the extended feeding period, housing the cattle can seldom include slatted floors or concrete pens.
A typical dairy beef production cost budget is shown in Table 1.
Dairy beef production is an effective source of high-quality beef, but the economic profile and feeding system will need to be more specialized in order to be profitable.
Dr. John Comerford is an associate professor and extension beef specialist at Pennsylvania State University.