While a great many dairy producers are breeding their lower-end cows to beef bulls, that might not be your best option, according to Dr. Dan Schaefer, professor and former chair of animal sciences at the University of Wisconsin College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. He has been researching Holstein steers since 1982.

“Holstein steers are a very important component of the beef industry,” he says, making up 13.8% of the fed steer and heifer supply, and 33% of the USDA prime carcasses in the nation. “I think packers want to stay with Holstein steers for now,” he says. “There is a lot to be learned yet about [Holstein-beef] crossbreds. Dairies overall would benefit from growing large lots of predictable cattle.”

He continues, “Since the characteristics of Holstein progeny sired by beef-breed bulls will be more variable, costs of production and carcass value are less certain.”

What is the ideal dairy steer? It depends on what company you are selling to, says Schaefer. Learn what your local packer is looking for and customize your growing plan to what they want. They may prefer Holstein steers over crossbreeds, and some want calf-fed Holstein steers at 1,400 pounds at 15-16 months; others may want steers heavier than 1,550. To get the maximum revenue, you need to know your market, he says.

The most distinctive difference between Holstein steers and common beef breeds at the market is not at all quality but rather the lower dressing percentage due to a larger gut, liver and abdominal fat, and reduced muscle score and subcutaneous fat. They also tend to have smaller ribeye areas. “But,” he says, “the market understands these deficiencies and knows how to value them.”


Some packers actually prefer Holstein steers to Holstein-beef crossbreds because they are more predictable for how they will dress out, but Schaefer says the easiest profit in current markets is to sell 100-pound Holstein-beef crossbreds.

Schaefer refers to the Holstein-beef crossbred market as being “immature.” He says, “This market will become more discriminating as finishers and packers gain experience with these bull calves and know what to expect.”

Dairy steers have comparable quality grade attributes and higher marbling scores than the U.S. fed cattle population, Schaefer says. There is also no repeatable breed difference between Angus and Holstein in taste or tenderness attributes, which are supported by histology and biochemistry.

Holstein beef has a greater drip loss than Angus beef (this is when muscle juice separates from the meat and it is considered a loss because it is raw meat weight that cannot be sold as meat.) However, supplementing vitamin E in the finishing diet would solve this problem.

Holstein steers and finished steers in general will be discounted if they are incompletely castrated (stags), if their beef color is blackish red due to stress just before harvest, if they are over 30 months and therefore their beef is not eligible for the export market, and if they are given a beef quality grade of “Standard,” which results from very little presence of marbling.

There currently is not any unbiased performance data to compare Holstein steers to Holstein-beef crossbreds, but Schaefer said Holstein-beef crosses should have a higher average daily gain than Holstein steers and should reach market weight a month or two earlier.

No matter if you are raising Holstein steers or Holstein-beef crossbreds, you need to get them off to a good start for rapid growth rates.

If you want a low mortality rate for your bull calves and fewer respiratory issues later, feed them four liters of colostrum within eight hours of birth. “Heifers are the preferred animal, so they always get colostrum and the bull calves get milk replacer. The impact on their health later in life is significant; colostrum needs to be fed to bull calves,” Schaefer says. Your newborn bull-calf colostrum protocol should be the same or very similar to the protocol for heifer calves.

If you purchase bull calves, include the feeding of colostrum as part of your calf purchase contract.

Castration and dehorning both need to be done early, he says. If dehorning is done too late, it can be a major growth setback for the animal. And, says Schaefer, make sure both testicles are in the scrotum before banding or cutting, as it is expensive to re-castrate and there are steep discounts for stags when selling the finished animal.

“It’s simple math; count to two and then the job is done,” he says.

Schaefer says not to have a target day of age for weaning, but rather have a goal of doubling the initial birth weight by 56 days of age, with a hip growth of four inches or more. Diet transitions should be accomplished in individual housing prior to moving to group pens. A diet of 18% crude protein is recommended.

He cites research that states there is a carry-forward benefit to growth rate if 30% hay was included in the starter diet up to 400 pounds of body weight.

Steers should not be fed large amounts of corn silage; it does not have enough energy for them to finish at an acceptable harvest weight. It is fine as an ingredient, Schaefer says, but it needs to be 20% or less of the diet, or there simply is not enough energy. One could begin feeding a finisher diet of 62 to 65 megacalorie net energy (Mcal NEg) for gain per hundredweight of dry matter (cwt/DM) beginning at Holstein steer weights of 400 pounds or possibly as late at 750 pounds.

A grower phase is not generally needed for Holstein steers, and if pastures or silage are incorporated into the diet to accommodate a cropping system, that is best done from 400 to 750 pounds. Once off the pasture or silage, reduce the forage component to achieve a greater than 62 Mcal NEg/ cwt DM. He says, “They will respond nicely once on the high energy diet,” meaning they will have rapid growth rates to make up for their earlier slow growth when fed silage or pasture.

Aim for dry, draft-free housing. He notes that Holstein steers have thinner hides and less subcutaneous fat cover, so adequate bedding is critical. Research shows dairy steers can better handle elevated temperatures but are less tolerant of freezing temperatures and will use more energy just to stay warm.  end mark

Kelli Boylen is a freelancer based in northeast Iowa. 

PHOTO: Compared to dairy-beef crossbred steers, Holstein steers offer more consistency and less variability in carcass size and quality, something which the packers find valuable. Staff photo.