Not only are dairymen interested in raising their own bull calves for the beef market, many are interested in expanding into a secondary, complementary beef enterprise on the dairy farm and are purchasing Holstein calves for this purpose.

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Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural a...

Some are leaving dairy farming altogether yet finding a way to remain within the industry’s fold by selling the milking herd and raising Holstein steers for beef.

The Pennsylvania Beef Producers Working Group – a collaboration between Penn State Extension, the Pennsylvania Beef Council, Center for Beef Excellence and the Pennsylvania Cattlemen’s Association – conducted trials in 2016 at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s Livestock Evaluation Center, raising 44 head of Holstein for the beef market.

Healthy calves, raised on a high-grain diet with feed conversion rations of 7 to 1, demonstrated the potential of calf-fed Holstein beef.

This calf-fed Holstein beef program focuses on the best way to achieve the most average daily gain economically, in the least amount of time, while meeting beef quality standards. But what challenges are dairy farmers up against if they want to profitably raise their steers, ultimately selling to packers, where the meat must grade well and compete with native beef breeds?


“Holsteins have tremendous marbling potential” due to the genetic selections for milk traits that have occurred, says Dr. Tara Felix, a Penn State Beef Extension specialist. Holsteins are “genetically primed to marble well. The majority of our Holstein genetics in the U.S. come from three top sires,” which means “predictable growth” and “marbling at a very young age.”

Success in the beef market depends upon how that Holstein calf is fed, Felix said. At the feedlot stage, feeding Holsteins is very similar to feeding native beef breeds. But in the calf pen, Holsteins raised for the wholesale beef market require special diets. Holsteins are a dairy breed, and their rumens need to be prepared for the high-grain feedlot diet if they are to perform alongside native beef breeds.

Calf-fed protocol

It all begins – whether calves are destined for the dairy or the beef feedlot – with colostrum. Getting colostrum into calves immediately always results in the best health outcomes, says Cassie Yost, a member of the Penn State Dairy Extension team.

“Prevention is key here,” Yost says, emphasizing that every hour’s delay in receiving colostrum results in a 10 percent greater chance of illness.

But once that colostrum has done its job, Holstein calves in the calf-fed program diverge from the normal early nutrition protocol for dairy cows. The abomasum is a part of the cow stomach that processes milk. Processing milk is a non-ruminant function, and the rumen remains undeveloped as long as the calf remains on milk.

To develop the rumen, the high-energy diet promoted by the calf-fed Holstein program begins with very early grain feeding. From the beginning, producers should be following a step-down protocol to get calves off milk gradually.

The transition from milk to grain begins immediately for calf-fed steers, with grain introduced the first week. Within three weeks, calves will start to consume the grain regularly. By 4 weeks old, a TMR can then be introduced.

“Decrease stressors for them and do things on a gradual basis,” Yost said.

At 8 weeks old, calves should weigh 200 pounds, with an average daily gain of 1.6 pounds. By 10 weeks old, calves will be fully weaned. By 16 to 20 weeks, at 300 to 400 pounds, calves are ready for the feedlot. Once in the feedlot setting, 2.4 pounds per day of average daily gain should be the target. Ultimately, a 1,350- to 1,400-pound animal, one ready for harvest at 17 to 20 months old, is the goal.

Rumen development

“Grain-fed calves can develop fully functioning rumens at 3 or 4 weeks,” Yost explains. “The objective is to produce dairy beef on a high-energy, low-roughage feeding program.”

Grain and forage have different effects on the rumen. When Holstein calves are raised for beef on this protocol, forage isn’t on the menu.

A lack of rumen development slows down post-weaning growth. The dairy beef high-energy diet gets the rumen developed, so the average daily gains are maximized right from the start.

When fed grain, rumen papillae elongate, allowing increased absorption of nutrients, and the rumen wall thickens. Water is a key ingredient too, helping to develop the volatile fatty acids that produce rumen growth.

But forages don’t promote this type of rumen growth. Feeding hay increases acetic acid content of the rumen and does not increase papillae growth and development. And forages cause the rumen to stretch, not to grow via rumen wall development.

While forage is important for longevity and milk production in the dairy, it is counterproductive when raising dairy beef. But being ruminants, cows will select hay over grain. A pasture-based diet will burn energy, another negative when the goal is packing on the pounds. Hay will add days to the feeding program too.

There is no benefit to offering hay for the calf-fed Holstein beef producer. The calf-fed beef program is instead based on an 80 percent grain diet with no pasture access.

While a free-choice hay and grain diet is “easy management,” it “takes away your ability to be a nutritionist,” Felix says. Successfully raising Holstein calves for beef “requires putting a great deal of thought into their nutritional program.”

Rumen changes aren’t only physical; the rumen chemistry and biology changes, too.

“The chemistry of the gut changes. The pH drops, and passage rates increase, when cattle are switched from forage to grain. Thus, due to their symbiotic relationship, the gut biology – the microbes – must also change to species that are better adapted or prefer the chemistry of the grain-fed rumen,” Felix says.

Whether beef or dairy breeds, these rumen adaptations aren’t genetic, so beef breeds have to adjust when moved from pasture to feedlot too.

But the physiology of Holsteins is genetically different than native beef. Calf-fed Holsteins can achieve USDA meat grades of Choice or even Prime, and Holstein beef is said to be “genetically trimmed” to one-half inch.

“The Holstein breed just doesn’t lay down subcutaneous fat, also called back fat, very well,” Felix said. “In the beef industry, beef breeds will lay down this back fat and we have to trim that back fat to one-half inch before we sell the meat. Because the Holsteins don’t lay down a lot of fat, the packer doesn’t usually have to trim much fat off. This is a savings of both time and money for the packer.”

Dairy farmers seeking to raise Holstein calves for beef can implement a high-grain diet, promoting faster average daily gain and finishing time through rumen adaptations. Whether raising Holstein calves to finish, or sending calves to be finished in the feedlot, the calf-fed model promotes economical gain and a quality meat product. end mark

PHOTO: Dairy producers are turning to beef as a second enterprise on the farm. One model for calf-fed beef incorporates high-quality colostrum, early grain feeding, weaning at 10 weeks and no forage, including pasture. Photo by Karen Lee. 

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food system topics.