Pennsylvania state beef extension specialist Dr. Tara Felix says dairy steers contribute to approximately 15 to 20 percent of the nation’s beef supply, and that numerous packers are interested in receiving a steady supply of them.
“Holstein calves have the genetics and the propensity to marble and cut out exceedingly well,” said Felix. “Whatever we’ve done to breed for milk production, we have inadvertently selected genetically for a tremendous amount of marbling in Holstein calves if we feed and treat them right.”
Felix outlines the good, the bad and the ugly about raising Holstein steers. “These calves have a great temperament,” said Felix, starting with the good. “Coming from the beef industry into the black and white world, this was hard for me. I’m used to a calf moving away when I approach it. These animals all come toward me. We’re used to beef cattle moving away from us, we’re used to calves working in a flight zone, and now we almost have to lead them — they just don’t function the way we’re used to.” Felix added that Holstein steers’ gentleness is appropriate for younger children who might not be able to work safely around more flighty young beef calves.
Another advantage is uniformity of genetics — about 80 to 90 percent of Holsteins can be traced to three sires. “We’ve done a phenomenal job selecting for uniformity of genetics in Holstein cows,” said Felix. “When these animals are in a feedlot, we see very uniform, very consistent rates of gain among a group.” Felix added that in the beef industry, there’s no ‘right’ way to feed a beef calf — grass, hay, corn, by-products or any combination of feeds there’s a genetic match for that system. In the Holstein feeding system, the advantage is that any Holstein calf fits into a program to finish within a certain weight range.
Exceptional marbling is another advantage. Part of that is due to a high grain diet starting at a very young age, but also due to the amino acids acetate, butyrate and propionate. “Butyrate and propionate are important for rumen development,” said Felix. “Propionate is also very important for marbling. If you want a beef calf to marble and bring it off pasture, you’re going to put grain into it for marbling. Same thing with Holstein calves. If you continue to feed grain after the rumen is developed, that grain, and the propionate that’s produced, will aid in marbling. So it’s partly genetics but also how they’re being fed.”
While the bull, or steer calf was formerly thought of as a by-product of milk production, these animals now have significantly more value as beef. “In the past, that by-product has been extremely affordable because it wasn’t needed,” said Felix. “The dairy farmer needed the lactation but didn’t need the calf. We have come full circle on that. The question of whether they’re a by-product and ‘cheap’ starting out depends on the marketplace.”
While the temperament of the Holstein steer makes it easy to work with, most beef producers prefer an animal that moves away when pushed and knows how to work through a chute — a potential negative when it comes to efficiency. “The easy temperament can be frustrating,” said Felix. “You have to be okay with that. Getting upset and pushing isn’t going to get you anywhere with them.”
Another ‘bad’ is that Holsteins will be in the feedlot longer, which can be a disadvantage for producers who are used to moving calves in and out as quickly as possible. Traditionally, beef producers strive to get two groups of feeders through a lot in a year. “That isn’t the case with the Holstein calf,” said Felix. “We’re going to wean the calf at 16 to 20 weeks, bring them to the feedlot, they’re still a small calf and won’t have the same rate of gain as a beef steer. It’s a practice in patience. You can expect these animals to be on feed for 300 to 400 days.”
Because of their frame size and gut metabolism, Holsteins have higher maintenance requirements. It takes more feed just to meet the calf’s daily nutritional needs than it does to keep a native beef steer alive. Felix says beef cattle are regularly fed diets that are 56 to 58 megacalories of net energy for gain. “When we think about Holsteins, we feed 60 to 62 megacalories because that calf has higher maintenance energy requirement, and we have to feed a higher energy ration in order to dilute maintenance costs and allow for increased average daily gain.”
When compared to native beef breeds, Holsteins have a greater feed intake. Felix noted that the Holstein calves on feed last year at the Livestock Evaluation Center were eating approximately 20 pounds of corn grain every day, and that doesn’t include protein and fiber sources.
Because of the increased feed and water intake, pens tend to be messier, so good facility design and drainage is essential. Felix noted that it’s part of Holstein calves’ nature to play, and they tend to play in water tanks. “If they’re on a bedded pack, you’ll have to consider more bedding to keep calves dry,” she said.
Felix outlines some of what she calls ‘the ugly’ about raising Holstein beef. Holsteins tend to be pattern eaters more than native beef breeds. “Any beef calf will have a pattern where if it’s fed once a day it will eat up to 70 percent of total feed intake within the first six hours after feeding,” she said. “Holsteins seem to be even more like this — think about how we push feed to the Holstein cow and encourage them to come to the bunk to eat more. If we only put feed in the bunks once or twice a day, calves will run up to the bunk because they’re curious about humans and curious about new feed. They’ll consume, and throughout the rest of the day, they dawdle. The patterns they develop as a result of their interaction and relationship with humans is unique to the Holstein calf.” These pattern eaters have a greater risk for acidosis and potentially liver abscesses because they over-consume early and ruminate the rest of the day.
Market fluctuations are more potential for ugly. There’s a chance that young steers will be purchased for a certain price and the producer won’t receive sufficient return. “You don’t get in the business for one calf cycle,” said Felix. “It’s almost guaranteed you won’t make money in the first cycle because you’re still figuring things out — what the market is going to do. You get in the business to be in the cattle business, and the longevity is what you’re after. You can ride out the valleys and peaks if you have a consistent calf supply and if you’re in for more than one cycle.”