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Dairy-Beef: Shifting from the Parlour to the Feedlot

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This is part one in a series that will explore the opportunities and challenges of dairy-beef cross calves with perspectives from across the value chain including the primary producer, backgrounder, feedlot and processor. 

Across the country, a growing number of dairy-beef cross calves sourced from Canada and the United States are appearing in Canadian feedlots, a sight that has raised understandable concern for many cow-calf producers. One of these concerns has been how their feeder calves will compete for feedlot spaces against less expensive dairy-beef crosses.

For this article, “dairy-beef” refers to an animal with a dairy dam and a beef sire.

Kolk Farms dairy beef at bunk
Dairy-beef feeders at Kolk Farms Ltd.

In Canada, the demand for more efficient dairy production has led to intense genetic selection to identify the most productive replacement dairy heifers. Due to advances in artificial insemination technology, sexed semen has become a commonly used tool to further this initiative. Using sexed semen from the best dairy sires has allowed dairy producers to produce optimal replacement heifers from their best dairy cows. The genetically inferior dairy cows still need to be bred and calve in order to produce milk, but these calves are not retained for breeding and ultimately go for veal or beef production. However, straight-bred dairy calves (regardless of breed) do not make ideal beef animals. 

In terms of their structure, a dairy animal has been selectively bred to focus energy into milk production and not into carcass traits. In the past, an animal that was strictly a dairy breed did not perform as well in a feedlot scenario as the traditional beef animal. One way to improve the “beefiness” of a dairy animal is to crossbreed dairy cows with a beef sire. By doing this, the dairy-beef animal produced will be more tolerant to the weather, grow faster, be more feed efficient, will take less time on feed and produce more beef than a straight-bred dairy animal.  

These dairy-beef animals, while improved genetically, are not without challenges. Management of dairy-beef calves is variable from operation to operation. However, a strong focus needs to be placed on the early care of these calves in order to give them their best chance at the feedlot.  

Leighton Kolk, Kolk Farms Ltd., Iron Springs, AB 

Leighton Kolk and his dairy-beef crossed calves in Iron Springs, Alberta
Leighton Kolk, Kolk Farms Ltd.

Three years ago, Leighton Kolk began sourcing dairy-beef crossed calves from the U.S. and Canada. Due to the size of American dairy herds, calf ranches were developed as a way to prepare the undervalued male dairy calves for feedlots. Leighton says the ranches they have been purchasing from provide colostrum for three days (some as early as two hours after birth), follow a vaccination protocol, castrate and dehorn the calves prior to sale at six months of age.

Leighton says their operation has started a database to track the performance of the dairy-beef feeders, as “a too-high energy ration too early in life can cause liver damage, and we want to be able to track this.” He says the dairy-beef crosses also take longer to finish (up to one year) and don’t always yield the same as a beef animal.

Due to the seasonality of the Canadian beef industry, there is an influx of traditional beef feeder calves into the marketplace typically in the fall. Leighton says this can be a challenge for feedlots and compares a feedlot to a hotel. “In order to make money a hotel has to be at full capacity year-round,” he says. “It can’t rely on just the peak season to run a successful business. A feedlot is a similar scenario, the dairy-beef feeders can be purchased year-round to fill pens when there are not as many beef animals available.”  

Kolk Farms dairy-beef
Dairy-beef feeders at Kolk Farms Ltd.

According to Leighton, the feeding of dairy-beef cross calves in Canada can be viewed as a win for the sustainability of both the dairy and beef sectors. “For the dairy sector, utilizing these animals to produce a crossbred feeder animal that performs much better than a straight-bred dairy steer moves these animals from an undervalued product to a higher-value product. For the feeding sector, these animals were being fed somewhere regardless. By adding beef genetics, this improves the feed efficiency from an 8:1 feed conversion in a purebred Holstein to a 7:1 conversion in a crossed steer, resulting in three to four less pounds of feed every day.” 

One of the largest concerns from cow-calf producers is that the dairy-beef crossed feeders will displace feedlot spaces for their calves. Leighton says, in the big picture, this isn’t the case.

“Straight beef is still more desirable and feedlot operators will pay more. Keep producing good beef and you will get paid regardless. Displacing a beef animal isn’t the full picture.” 

— Alberta dairy-beef producer Leighton Kolk
dairy-beef animals at feed trough
“The straight beef won’t ever be displaced, but the dairy-beef crosses will likely remain 20-30% of our operation,” says Alberta producer Leighton Kolk.

Since 2003, the cow herd has been in decline across North America. “We still want a healthy beef industry and packing industry. We are an exporting country, we still want to produce grain-fed, high-value, high carcass characteristics, tasty, juicy beef that our customers want. We’re good at doing this in a sustainable way here in Canada. If we keep this system running, we’re also keeping other industries running – feed sector, labour force, trucking, biofuels, etc. If you’re not replacing the cow herd, we’re in decline which can make us less competitive.”

Leighton says they have received some push-back from plants because the straight-bred dairy carcass isn’t the same as a beef carcass; yields can be lower than a beef animal. 

Russ Mallard, Atlantic Beef Products Inc., Albany, PEI 

Atlantic Beef Products Inc. (ABPI), based in Albany, Prince Edward Island, is the only federally inspected beef processing plant located in Atlantic Canada. The plant primarily processes cattle from within Atlantic Canada, but sometimes must supplement production with cattle from Quebec and Ontario.  

Russ Mallard is the president of ABPI, the current chair of Canada Beef, the marketing arm of the Canadian Beef Check Off Agency, and vice chair of the Canadian Meat Council. According to Russ’ experience with processing “dairy-beef” at the plant, “Holstein steers, if fed the right diet very early on in their life cycle, will have a better meat-to-bone ratio than Holstein calves that are not fed the proper diet.”

Typically, purebred Holsteins do not have the muscle mass of a dairy-beef cross and, as a result, have thinner rib-eyes and striploins. Because of this, Holstein beef on the rail is discounted accordingly. Dairy-beef crosses are more muscled and are not discounted.

A comparison of strip loins from A) conventional beef, B) dairy-beef cross and C) conventional dairy
A comparison of strip loins from  conventional beef, dairy-beef cross and conventional dairy
Source: Dale R. Woerner et al. 2022

The first seven days of a dairy-beef calf’s life are very important to set up a calf to be a successful dairy-beef feeder. Among other things, ensuring that newborn calves are provided with good quality colostrum, proper antibiotic use and appropriate shipping times are critical to their long-term success at the feedlot.

In addition to the processing facility, Atlantic Beef Products also operates Triple H Farms Inc., an 800-head feedlot, also located in PEI. Bruce Andrews, vice president of operations for ABPI, also oversees the feedlot. “The purpose of the feedlot is to supply the plant with beef when local cattle are not available,” Bruce says. “We finish primarily dairy-beef crosses and beef cattle. We have first-hand experience with dairy calves, as well, and we know they are more challenging to raise successfully, particularly if they don’t get a good start with colostrum, timely vaccinations and the right feed mix.”

A “bob” calf is an industry term used for calves less than 30 days old and may be a dairy breed or a dairy-beef cross.

“We know a lot of value can be added to the Island agricultural sector if dairy calves can stay here to be fed, rather than being shipped off Island for veal production,” Bruce says. “Farm cash receipts can increase and stay local, and the manure also stays local which benefits the potato producers.”

Russ adds, “At the end of the day, we’re still producing a local product, and consumers from across the country love beef from our region.” Like the rest of Canada, the beef herd in Atlantic Canada has been in decline since 2003. “Feeding dairy calves and dairy-beef crosses is one way to ensure that the plant can continue to provide its essential service for the beef industry in Atlantic Canada.”

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COMMENTS


Zach VanthournoutJune 27, 2023

I raise dairy beef in Atlantic Canada and deal with ABP as a backup source. Most of my herd, constant flow, offers me a year round supply for my farm gate operation. I source my calves from a local dairy, I used to take all their calves, but because of discounts, and ABP policy that no dairy animal can get bonuses on slaughter, ivevstepped away from the holsteins to only raise crosses

The holsteins are more expensive, we've raised AAA, potentially prime my clients love our product

I believe that dairy beef is the ultimate in leveraging a supply chain

The benefits for us, no heifer herd, no cost to maintain or raise them. No bulls to deal with or AI. We "beef out" heifers from our source farm. No hooves to trim. We have a simple vaccination protocol, animals are on the farm 14 months - max-

Now because we're out of the holstein game no dehornings, so our costs are lower.

Feel free to contact me if you want to discuss further

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