Beef and dairy farmers alike attended Penn State Extension’s recent workshop last month on best practices for raising Holstein bull calves for the beef market. These animals are not the same as beef breeds, due to the extensive breeding of dairy cattle for milk production and can’t be expected to perform in the feedlot as do native beef breeds.

But that doesn’t mean that Holstein beef can’t be a profitable venture. Instead, it means that even experienced beef producers, or dairy farmers seeking to diversify into raising their own beef steers, need to learn how to get the most gain, for the least cost, while producing a Holstein carcass that grades well.

According to Cheryl Fairbairn, PSU Animal Science Educator, meetings on the calf-fed Holstein beef program, held during the past year on a regional and state-wide basis, have attracted approximately 800 producers. These meetings introduced the protocol and the results from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s Livestock Evaluation Center’s (LEC) eight month calf-fed Holstein beef feeding demonstration.

“There is a mix of people who are already feeding Holsteins on a small level, those who are thinking about doing it, those who are dairying and want to look at adding this as another enterprise on the farm and those who are feeding native cattle and are thinking of possibly adding Holsteins” Fairbairn said. “The calf-fed Holstein program provides educational opportunities for dairy and beef producers to understand how to finish Holsteins on a grain based diet so they produce calves that are acceptable to packer and consumer. It also gives producers the opportunity to diversify their operations if they so desire too.”

The Model

The program depends upon healthy calves entering feedlot environments at 20 weeks of age. Before then, the calves need to be protected from disease — particularly scours and respiratory illnesses — and acclimated to a grain-based, high-energy diet.

The calf-fed feeding program requires starting the calves on milk or milk replacer and plenty of fresh water, with very little or no hay. The calves transition from milk to grain to the total mixed ration (TMR) that they will receive in the feedlot. Grain is added as soon as one week of age, to introduce the calves to a grain-based diet which they will begin to consume regularly by three weeks of age. Adequate fresh water is important for the development of volatile fatty acids, which stimulate rumen growth.

At eight weeks and approximately 200 lbs — a 1.6 lb average daily gain (ADG) should have been achieved, animals will be weaned slowly. Feeding increasing amounts of grain while decreasing milk in a “step down” pattern, designed to decrease animal stress, is key. After 10 weeks, calves should be fully weaned and adjusted to a high-energy diet.

A primary goal in feeding the calves grain from a young age and not feeding forage, is to develop the rumen to adapt it to a grain-fed diet. Rumen papillae are developed with grain feeding and are needed to increase the ADG. Having the most ADG, from the start, is the goal.

Feeding hay stretches the rumen, but does not cause rumen growth and is counter-indicative in the feedlot. Forage also causes increase in acetic acid levels, which decrease rumen papillae growth. A pasture-based diet will burn energy, decreasing the gain received from grain.

The calf-fed diet is meant to “get them ready for the feedlot setting,” Cassie Youst, Penn State Extension Dairy Educator said. After three or four weeks of rumen development, total mixed rations can be introduced. At 16-20 weeks of age, the animals are ready to be moved to the feedlot. They should weigh 300-400 lbs at this time.

At the feedlot stage, feeding Holsteins is similar to feeding any beef breed. It is the calf stage feeding program that primes the Holstein rumen for a high-grain diet. For calves not weaned to a high-grain diet, adjustment to the feedlot diet will be needed.

Feedlot Finishing

“We’re talking about these Holstein animals because they are beef,” Tara Felix, Beef Extension Specialist said.

Unlike beef cattle breeds, however, Holsteins have been genetically selected for milk production, so their rumens are not the same. Holsteins have comparatively large guts. Gut cells turn over every 24 hours. The larger the gut, the more energy devoted to this activity. Holsteins require more energy to put on the same gain as beef breeds.

This greater maintenance requirement means they need more feed, more water and produce more manure. Holsteins require 10 to 20 percent more days on feed (DOF) than do native beef breeds.

Holsteins “marble at a very young age,” and “are genetically primed to marble well,” Felix said. Their growth is predictable, as “the majority of our Holstein genetics in the United States come from three top sires.”

The target goal is finishing Holsteins at 1,400 lbs in about 18 months time. Finished Holsteins do not look the same as finished beef breeds. The animal might look different, but Holstein beef grades well, with most of the calf-fed Holsteins grading at Choice or above.