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Feeding Holstein Steer Calves for Beef Market
August 1, 2016

The drought of 2012 and record beef prices, during this period, revitalized the interest in feeding dairy steer calves for beef, in particular the Holstein steer.

This increased interest has meant more accepting sale of these animals to a packer and more competitive markets for Holstein beef.

With the drought of 2012, beef cow numbers in the United States dipped to their lowest since the 1980s. Less momma cows means less calves, and less beef, produced. This was a challenging time for the beef industry. In addition, when the drought occurred, we started to see a slight downturn in per capita beef consumption. Beef has historically had a “faithful following” if you will. Backing up even before the drought, rising corn prices had begun to increase the cost of retail beef cuts. From 2009 to 2014, the average price for retail Choice beef boxed cutouts increased by over 40% (USDA-ERS, 2015). Despite the fact that there are cheaper protein sources available to the consumers and prices were on the rise, consumer demand for beef remained, nearly unchanged since the 1980s. As an industry though, we were tasked with trying to maintain that demand for our product in the face of short supply.

With rising costs of product and a shortage of the calf supply, beef cattle producers, and the industry as a whole, began to explore alternatives to reduce costs. We looked at different feedstuffs to reduce input costs. We sought to use more technologies and increase carcass weights to increase saleable red meat per calf. We saw increasing numbers of cows at the packing plants, despite the tight inventory already. Last but not least, we started sourcing more and more dairy-type animals to supply beef.

Now, I am not claiming that we did not feed and use dairy animals for beef prior to these events. However, I do think the drought and record high beef prices revitalized the interest in feeding dairy steer calves for beef, in particular the Holstein steer. This increased interest has meant more accepting sale of these animals to a packer and more competitive markets for Holstein beef.

The historic view of Holstein beef of a poor quality product used for ground meat. However, an analysis of dairy beef marketing presented 10 years ago refuted this perception. Burdine and colleagues presented their finding at a dairy beef conference held at Iowa State University in 2005. Their data suggested that Holstein beef were at least as likely to grade prime as beef from native steers (beef type breeds) and often even graded better than native steers. When comparing all production and marketing differences, the authors stated they were surprised that the market for finished Holstein steers more closely followed boxed beef prices than ground beef prices, like the market for native steers.

All that being said, when feeding the Holstein for beef, there are a few key things to keep in mind. Holstein steers require 10 to 12% more feed energy just to maintain themselves than native steers (Chester-Jones and DiCostanzo, 2012). Producers raising Holstein steers in a feedlot then should expect them to consume more than their native steer pen mates. That said, the tight genetics of the Holstein breed, generally mean that Holstein steers, as a group, can be expected to have a more uniform and predictable performance. This is advantageous for the feeder when it comes to marketing windows and predictions. The attributes, relative to this uniformity, are increased if those Holsteins enter the feedyard prior to 500 pounds (Peters, 2005). Where a historical model of Holstein feeding might be kicking those steer calves out to pasture for a year or so then bringing them in to the feedlot, the current model is shifting. We see more Holsteins entering the feedlot as calf-feds, directly or soon after weaning. Getting grain into the Holstein at this young age increases overall efficiency of the system and helps to guarantee the quality of the end product by reducing total days on feed and, thus, age at slaughter.

In order maintain gains year round, producers should realize that Holsteins, relative to native cattle, are more accustom to “pampering”, think again of the gene pool. Feedlot operators raising Holsteins have noted their intolerance for wind and cold. Compared to the native cattle, Holsteins tend to need more bedding to reduce the effect of cold stress on gain (Grant et al., 1993). The Holstein steers will likely never be as efficient as native cattle, due to their greater maintenance requirement discussed above, but they should be able to gain comparably making them a viable options to feedlot operators in the Northeast, where Holstein calves are plentiful.

To demonstrate the calf-fed Holstein model in Pennsylvania, the Beef Producers Working Group has partnered with PA Department of Agriculture and JBS to provide a Holstein calf-fed demonstration in conjunction with Ag Progress Days. Scheduled bus tours will take interested parties to the Livestock Evaluation Center for the demonstration.

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