Calf-fed Holsteins Make Major Contribution to U.S. Beef

Holstein Steers ( Wyatt Bechtel )

They make up well over 10% of the United States’ total fed beef supply. They produce about one-third of the nation’s total supply of Prime-grade beef. And they make the largest purebred contribution to the U.S. fed cattle population. If you thought Holstein steers were a second-tier scourge to the rest of the fed cattle industry, think again.

“Raising dairy beef used to be something you somewhat bashfully acknowledged that you did,” said Dan Schaefer, Emeritus Professor of Animal Sciences at the University of Wisconsin. But Schaefer told the audience at the recent, virtual Four-State Dairy Nutrition and Management Conference that Holstein steers finally are receiving the credit they are due. That is thanks largely to new nutrition and management programs that intentionally develop male dairy calves into young, well-finished, superior beef animals.

The advent of “calf-fed” dairy beef programs is a vastly different nutritional approach compared to the days when dairy steers were raised largely on forages, often including pasture. Their finishing age sometimes approached two years, and their carcass quality often garnered little better than cull-cow prices. 

Calf-fed animals, on the other hand, are managed from birth to consume high-energy rations as quickly as possible. Unlike native cattle, they do not have to transition through a “grower” stage, because they don’t need the extra help developing frame size like traditional beef animals do.  Finished, calf-fed Holstein steers result from being fed a high-energy diet that allows them to add muscle and some fat despite their rapid skeletal growth. Their youthfulness is reflected in their head length, which is characteristically shorter than if they were first fed a finishing diet as yearlings.

“Dairy steers can very quickly ramp up to a high-energy finisher ration, starting at a bodyweight of as low as 225 pounds,” advised Schaefer.  He said the ideal energy content for the finisher ration is 62-65 Mcal NEg/cwt. DM.

An early and highly focused feeding plan is necessary to achieve market weights of 1,400-1,550 pounds by 14 months of age. That’s the industry weight and age standard for JBS, one of the largest buyers of dairy beef in the country. Bill Munns, Head of Sales and Supply Chain for JBS Regional Beef, concurred with Schaefer on a number of details during his own presentation at the conference.

“Achieving that level of feeding efficiency produces Holstein animals that meet specifications for our highest-quality programs,” said Munns, adding that JBS has five U.S. plants with dedicated Holstein beef procurement programs. 

According to Munns, more than 90% of Holstein steers achieve Yield Grades of 1, 2, or 3; produce exceptional marbling; and achieve meat tenderness and flavor that is indistinguishable from that of Angus steers. Holsteins also are highly consistent animals, owing to the fact that they are purebreds, with a relatively high degree of inbreeding and narrow genetic variation within the breed. “Compared to conventional beef, Holsteins have exceptionally consistent primal cuts like tenderloins and ribeyes,” said Munns. “That translates into more uniform presentation and predictable preparation.”

Schaefer pointed out some distinct differences in raising Holstein beef compared to native cattle, including:

Colostrum intake – While virtually every beef calf receives colostrum from its dam, too many male dairy calves still are sold without receiving colostrum. Given the growing body of evidence that colostrum not only translates into healthier calves, but also improves lifetime productivity of female dairy animals, Schaefer is convinced the same is true for males. He suggested cultivating buying relationships with dairies that ensure colostrum delivery to every calf.

Dehorning and castration – Most native cattle are naturally polled, but dairy steers need to be dehorned early in life to ensure safety to handlers and prevent bruising of pen mates as they grow. Castration also should be performed in the preweaning stage, because late-castrated stags are difficult to manage, and will receive price penalties at market time.

Environmental factors – Holstein steers have thinner hides and thus are less tolerant of cold stress. They need dry housing conditions and deep bedding to gain optimally.

Lower dressing percentage – A lower muscling score, less subcutaneous fat, increased liver size, larger gut and more abdominal fat all contribute to a lower average dressing percentage for Holsteins. But several of these factors also mean less trim during further processing, which helps balance the animals’ value.

“Our industry has a long memory for some of the historical problems with dairy beef, like dark cutters and older animals,” said Munns. “But calf-fed systems have changed that. Holstein steers now can be predictably consistent, reliable, profitable beef animals for the producer, which also deliver a retail gross revenue advantage for the retailer.”

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