“Bull or heifer?” It’s probably the most common question asked by dairy producers once a newborn calf hits the ground. Chances are, if you see a scowl furrow a farmer’s brow, the calf is most likely a bull.
While it might be frustrating when your favorite cow in the herd produces a bull calf, it does not mean that that calf does not poses some value. In fact, dairy beef makes up approximately 20% of the fed cattle market and have the genetic capabilities to produce high quality beef that is well-marbled with minimal backfat, according to Tara Felix, an Extension beef specialist with Pennsylvania State University. This means that there is a reliable market for dairy steers within the beef industry.
But before you begin to raise your bull calves, there are a few things to consider:
- Facilities, Facilities, Facilities
One of the most important factors when raising dairy steers is the availability of space. Do you have enough hutches? Enough pens? Or perhaps even an extra barn to finish these steers out?
“Dairy steers require more housing and shelter than conventional beef breeds of the same age,” Felix says. “Footing is very important because dairy beef steers are fed for nearly a year. Unbedded concrete or slatted floors can result in lameness.”
If space is a limiting factor for your operation, it may be best to only raise your replacement animals. But if you do have enough room, raising dairy steers may be an option.
- Do You Have Enough Feed?
Another factor to keep in mind is the amount of feed these animals will consume. Mature dairy steers will eat roughly 18-20 lb. of feed per day, according to the Product of Extension Beef Cattle Resource Committee. Therefore, it is important to analyze your feed inventory to ensure that there is enough to support these additional animals.
“Producing an acceptable-quality carcass from dairy beef steers requires feeding the animals a high-energy ration and marketing them at an early age (12 to 14 months) and acceptable weight (1,150 to 1,450 pounds),” Felix says. “Because of the higher ratio of feed to weight gain compared with traditional beef breeds, it will be most economical to target early, rapid weight gain in dairy beef steers to try to reach slaughter weight at as young an age as possible. Calves fed for more than 20 months are typically not profitable.”
One caution when feeding dairy steers is to remember that steers need to be fed a high concentrate diet instead of a forage-based program in order to achieve a better average daily gain.
- Treat Calves Equally.
When raising dairy steers from birth, it is crucial to provide the same care to the bulls as you would your newborn heifers.
“The future profitability of bull calves is greatly impacted by the care they receive during the first hours and days of life,” says Frank Wardynski, a Michigan State University Extension agent. “Calves that do not receive adequate immunoglobulin transfer within the first few hours of life are at greater risk of diseases such as scours and pneumonia and exhibit mortality rates twice those of calves receiving adequate immunoglobulin transfer. Management recommendations for steer calves need to be the same as the heifers if they are to be healthy and vigorous.”
Raising dairy steers can be a profitable addition to your operation, but only if it is properly managed. Before diving in head first, consider these key components along with the amount of labor that comes along with rearing these additional animals.