Some dairy producers who are breeding for beef crossbreds are only looking at two things: the price of semen and getting an animal that is as black as possible.
Freelance Writer
Kelli Boylen is a freelancer based in northeast Iowa.

“You need to think in a beef mindset, even on dairies,” says Denise Schwab, Iowa State University Extension beef specialist. “It needs to be more than just trying to get a black calf that you can sell for more.”

Decreased dairy profits and the marketability of crossbreds have spurred an increased interest in adding value to bull calves.

Currently, about 5% of U.S. dairy cows are bred to beef bulls, which calculates to more than 465,000 beef-dairy cross calves a year.

Look past the ‘cheap’ semen

Part of that mindset is to think about beef-on-dairy operations as an entire system, not just as a way to cheaply breed dairy cows. To make the dairy-beef crossbreds as profitable as possible, this should include a systems approach that includes female selection, sire selection for complementary traits, and management and health, Schwab says.


She says females selected to be bred to beef bulls should be selected based on individual performance, genetic merit and lactation.

In a recent survey of Iowa dairy producers, 80% cited their most common criteria used to select which cows are bred to beef bulls was the failure to conceive, but Schwab contests this idea. “It is incorrect to think that beef semen increases conception rate simply because it is beef instead of dairy. Much of the increase in conception is probably due to reduced handling of the semen compared to using sexed dairy semen.”

Schwab says we shouldn’t be just looking to breed cheap, black offspring, but rather be asking “if we can produce a dairy-beef cross that fits the current certified Angus beef market” by having few dairy characteristics and a grade average of Choice or higher.

Evaluate bull traits beyond coat color

Beef bulls chosen for breeding to dairy cows should be selected by characteristics of individual bulls, not just color of the breed. “You don’t just ask for Holstein bulls that are cheap, and you shouldn’t be doing that for beef bulls to breed to dairy either,” she says.

“The first trait when looking for a beef bull to breed to a dairy cow is ribeye area [REA or RE],” Schwab says. “Since we need to add more muscle size and shape to the dairy carcass, and bigger is better with REA.”

Holstein steers have a smaller ribeye that is a more elongated shape. Even in cattle with excellent quality grades, ribeye shape can be an issue, since it is not what consumers are necessarily looking for.

What else should dairy producers be looking for in beef bulls?

“Many of the other traits I think we need to moderate or balance with each other. From that perspective, trying to find a high yearling weight and average daily gain (ADG) but paired with a medium level of yearling height,” she says. “In other words, optimize growth rate and daily gain without getting a bigger frame size, since Holsteins already are big framed.”

She adds that from a carcass-merit perspective, look for bulls that have an average or better marbling score and average or better (leaner) back fat. “Holsteins marble very well, so we don’t want to hinder that potential.”

And last, but not least, is calving ease. “One point to remember is we still need moderate calving ease direct on beef bulls to ensure we get a live calf on the ground,” Schwab says.

Look for these individual bull traits:

  • RE score in the top 30 percentile for the breed, or more
  • Frame score of 5 or less
  • Top 50% for calving ease
  • Top 50% for marbling
  • Yearling weight score in the top 50 percentile for the breed
  • Yearling height in the bottom half of the breed

Systematically choosing beef bulls by complementarity to balance out strengths and weaknesses will not only be better for an individual operation looking to be more profitable, but it will also help the industry as a whole.

“Don’t just think of what happens on your operation,” Schwab says. “If the dairy industry doesn’t figure out how to best make a ‘beef’ calf from a dairy cow, there is not likely to be a market for them [dairy-beef crossbreds] in the future.”

Growth amid uncertainty

In 2000, the percentage of hide-on carcasses with predominant black and white Holstein hide color or breed type was 5.7%. In 2005, that number increased to 7.9%. In 2011, it decreased to 5.5% but then rose sharply in 2016 to 20.4%, according to the National Beef Quality Audit.

When crossing beef bulls to Jersey cows, the goal should be to add pounds, add muscle and maintain marbling.

It is still uncertain how dairy-beef crossbreds will affect the beef market, and there is still little data on how to best feed them and even what breeds best complement one another.

All calves, including dairy-beef crossbreds, need to be fed adequate colostrum to have full passive immunity transfer. “We need to make sure the calves are healthy if we want growers to buy them,” she says.

Beef and beef-cross calves which do not receive adequate colostrum are at 5.4 times greater risk of preweaning death, 3 times greater risk of feedlot health issues and 3.1 greater risk of feedlot death from respiratory issues, Schwab says.

Schwab says in order to have the best success when raising dairy-beef crossbreds, dairy producers need to learn and understand the beef market and focus on the same “feedlot mentality” as beef producers – focusing on growth, performance and carcass merit.  end mark

Kelli Boylen is a freelancer based in northeast Iowa.