Less than a decade ago, when a cow came into heat dairy producers could either breed her to conventional dairy semen or sexed. Nine times out of ten, the producer would choose the conventional option. Today, however, research shows that while conventional semen still ranks at the top, it is slowly becoming less and less popular amongst dairy producers.
“Farmers have [more] options nowadays with breeding,” says Victor Cabrera, an Extension specialist in dairy management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “About 40% of the semen [used on dairy cattle] nowadays is either beef or sexed semen.”
So, why the sudden surge in beef-on-dairy popularity? Perhaps it spurs from the low value for dairy bull calves, large dairy heifer inventories and the high cost of raising replacement animals. Though these are all rational reasons to consider breeding select cows in your herd to beef, it is important to not jump into the beef-on-dairy business too hastily.
During a recent Dairy Herd Management webinar titled, “How to Breed Dairy Cows for Profitable Beef,” Cabrera, along with Cheryl Ann Fairbairn, an Extension educator at Penn State University specializing in beef cattle production and management, spoke on how to choose beef semen to produce high-quality crossbred calves while minding profitability.
Making a beef-on-dairy breeding decision will depend on a number of potential factors, according to Cabrera. Three of the most important include the number of replacements needed for your operation, the economic value of the calves and the overall performance of the semen.
Additionally, semen strategies should depend on farm reproductive performance. The better the reproductive performance, the better the opportunity to use beef semen, Cabrera explains. Market conditions are also a large factor when it comes to figuring out if using beef semen is a realistic opportunity.
Beef semen offers up better benefits when it is combined with using sexed semen on the top tier of your herd, according to Cabrera.
“When we combine these tactics together, we are improving the genetic progress of the herd. The most progressive farmers are doing this,” he says.
Understanding the Beef Industry
Going from the dairy industry to the beef industry can be a tough transition, according to Fairbairn. It can be hard for dairy producers to understand the beef industry terminology, systems and demands.
“You are no longer producing an animal for milk,” Fairbairn explains. “You are producing an animal that has to meet the needs of the [beef] industry. That means you have several people in line before that meat hits the consumer.”
Assuming that you plan to step foot into the beef industry arena, it is important to understand what potential buyers want from crossbred beef-on-dairy animals.
“If you are going to sell these crossbred animals to a calf ranch, there are certain criteria that have to be met,” Fairbairn says. “They want healthy calves that have been fed colostrum and will be able to survive through the endpoint that that calf ranch wants to use them.”
Additionally, some calf ranches will want the genomic background of calves and are willing to pay premiums to producers if their calves have a history of performing well on the ranch.
“In comparison, the feedlot wants cattle that are uniform in weight, muscling and thickness,” Fairbairn explains. “They need cattle that are going to gain well and cattle who are efficient.”
Along with that, some feedlots, particularly in the Midwest, are looking for animals who have genomic information. Large feedlots are beginning to purchase feeder cattle based on their genomic potential for growth and carcass characteristics, according to Fairbairn.
“When it comes to the using genomics, dairy producers are far ahead compared to the beef industry, so understanding individual beef breed terminology is essential,” she says.
All breeds of beef will have different forms of terminology, but most will have data for yearling weight, rib eye area, carcass weight, marbling and calving easy. Fairbairn cautions producers to only compare genomic date within breeds, not against breeds, and beware of choosing the cheapest semen available or using semen from beef bulls that may be more maternal.
Fitting the Box
In order to satisfy the needs of the beef industry, dairy producers should strive to “fit the box,” according to Fairbairn. The goal should be to produce a crossbred carcass that is similar in shape, thickness and marbling.
“Dairy crosses have become a challenge when it comes to fitting in the box, primarily because it is hard to find the appropriate beef bulls with the ideal beef genomics to use on Holstein cows to produce an ideal product,” Fairbairn says. “We have to use [beef] breeds that are going to add muscle, add marbling and have growth and feed efficiency. We can’t do this by just looking at the cattle or listening to the hearsay of others. We’ve got to use the genomics that are available.”
Fortunately, semen companies, breed associations and universities are realizing the need for this information and working to help identify beef bulls that will work on dairy cattle.
One perk to creating animals that fit the box is the chance to capitalize on certain premiums that are available.
“There are premiums available for producers who meet the Certified Angus Beef requirements, but having a black hide is not the only one,” Fairbairn warns. “Don’t just buy the cheapest semen in the tank, because a lot of times that is what people just aren’t using anymore. Just because it is black does not mean that it will get you to wear you are wanting to go,” Fairbairn says. (To see the list of the Certified Angus Beef requirements, click here.)
A Sustainable Future
As the use of beef semen used on dairy cattle continues to grow in popularity, research from the University of Wisconsin has shown that in 2019, 20.5% of Holsteins in Wisconsin were bred to a beef bull, 19.2% were bred to sexed Holstein semen and the remaining 60.3% were bred to conventional Holstein semen. This is vastly different from 10 years ago when only 0.5% of Wisconsin’s Holsteins were bred to beef semen. (See graph below)
Though beef consumption is predicted to slightly decrease over the next 10 years, the projected population of people is forecasted to intensify throughout the next decade. This will overcompensate beef consumption, according to Cabrera, and the demand for beef will continue to rise. This will cause the market price for this commodity to increase as well.
“If we want to be sustainable in the long term with the business of producing beef animals, we need to produce what the beef industry demands from us,” Cabrera says.
The goal of breeding beef-on-dairy is to increase revenue for dairy producers. Typically, crossbred calves are more valuable than purebred dairy calves, so the potential to have a positive return on investment when purchasing beef semen is there. However, it is important to make sure that you have done your homework before diving in.
“You cannot do this and think you are going to get rich,” Fairbairn says. “Yeah, you are going to get a few more dollars, but if you really put your mind to it and produce something that the industry wants, I think you can be very successful with this. You have to push the pencil because this is not for everyone.”