Differences between beef and dairy are not always black and white

This month the Iowa beef industry is paying tribute to the dairy industry. The dairy industry is a significant contributor to the beef supply, providing lean beef for ground beef and other important items. This is becoming increasingly important as beef cow numbers are at historic lows. Ultimately all healthy dairy animals will become beef at some point. And besides, what's a hamburger without a slice of cheese on top?

Holstein steers and heifers also contribute to the fed beef supply. According to the 2011 National Cattlemen's Beef Association Quality Audit, Holsteins contributed 5.5% of the U.S. fed beef supply. This is based on the Holstein color pattern and would not include other dairy breeds or many crossbreeds. Holstein steers are important sources of feeder cattle in some regions of the U.S. In areas of California and Arizona, Holstein and dairy steers are fed almost exclusively. The Great Lakes Region, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, also is a region where Holstein steers make up a significant portion of the feeder cattle supply. Iowa borders Wisconsin and there are feeders that specialize in feeding Holstein steers here as well. It has been estimated that the four states of Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois feed over 20% of the Holstein bull calves in the U.S. With a growing dairy industry in northwest Iowa, dairy steer feeding is periodically attractive for feeders who might not otherwise consider it.

We are often asked, "What is different and what is the same when comparing the Holstein and the beef steer?"

First of all, both beef and dairy steers are the same species, Bos taurus. They both are functional ruminants that ferment and digest feed in the same way. They both generally respond similarly to management tools such as implants and vaccines, and they both require effective fiber in their diets to maintain rumen health. They both have the ability to marble and produce high quality, tender beef.

There are some differences, however. These differences are based partly on how they have been selected for many generations and partly on how they are raised and managed before they arrive at the feedlot.

Holsteins eat more feed than beef breeds, typically 10-15% more. They also have a 10-12% higher maintenance energy requirement. These two factors mean that Holsteins will typically require more feed to put on a pound of gain, but their rate of gain may be similar to beef steers. Holstein steers also tend to have a lower carcass yield or dressing percentage. If beef cattle have a dressing percentage of 62-64%, Holstein steers are typically 57-59%. Buyers who specialize in purchasing Holstein steers often will use a contract that accounts for these differences.

Source: Dan Loy, Iowa Beef Center director