Choosing Beef Genetics for Use in Dairy Herds


Source: South Dakota State University, Warren Rusche

Combinations of new technologies and economic challenges often usher in sweeping changes and opportunities. The use of beef genetics on dairy cows is the most-recent example. While there has always been some beef on dairy crossbreeding occurring, it was rarely conducted in a systematic large-scaled manner.

The reality is that with genomic selection tools and sexed semen not every dairy cow needs to be bred to a dairy bull to supply replacements. At the same time, one of the major beef processors in the US announced that they would no longer buy dairy steers, resulting in dramatically reduced values for dairy steers up and down the supply chain. Consequently, many dairy operations have seized on the idea of breeding a portion of their herd to beef bulls as a way to add value to bull calves and generate additional income. But what should dairy producers consider when choosing beef bulls to use on dairy cows?

Dairy Beef Strengths and Weaknesses

A black, crossbred calf standing in a feedlot.

Before jumping in blindly with a crossbreeding program, it would be useful to examine the strengths and weaknesses of the existing product (dairy steers). Dairy steers have a key advantage over many of the beef breeds raised in North America in that they come from a more consistent gene pool. Dairy steers are more predictable for both feedlot performance and carcass characteristics. In particular, they generally grade well with a high percentage of Choice and Prime carcasses with less backfat.

However, packers have significant concerns with dairy steer carcasses. Compared to native cattle, dairy steers lack muscling. The result is smaller rib eyes with a narrower shape that is less desired in some markets. For this reason, many branded beef programs and end-user specifications specifically exclude dairy genetics, particularly for the high-value middle meats (rib and loin).

Skeletal size is another challenge with the dairy steer. Excessive frame size in Holsteins can slow processing speeds and increase labor demands on the harvest floor. Many plants have insufficient rail heights to accommodate the skeletal length of some Holstein steers. On the other hand, Jersey steers are too small-framed and simply lack performance, efficiency, and carcass weight compared to beef genetics.

What Breed Should I Use?

Breed choice is often the first question asked, even before selection criteria have been determined. The beef industry has been arguing about which breed is superior for at least 50 years and we still have not reached complete agreement. In my opinion, rather than concentrate on breeds, we should first determine the objectives and then use available data to select what genetic inputs will best accomplish those goals.

That said, there are breed differences that can be exploited when designing a crossbreeding system. Data from the USDA Meat Animal Research Center shows that breeds do differ in carcass traits (Table 1). Cattle sired by continental breeds had increased rib eye area (REA) and reduced marbling compared to Angus-sired calves. That’s not to say that Continental sired cattle are always heavier muscled and that every Angus is superior for marbling. But this information does show that Angus bulls need to be better than breed average to equal the expected REA from a steer sired by an average Limousin sire, for instance.

Table 1. Carcass Traits by Breed of Sire
Hot Carcass Weight
Marbling Scorea
aMarbling score units: 400 = Low Select, 500 = Low Choice
Adapted from Kuehn and Thallman, 2018

Job Description for Beef on Dairy Sires

The decision to use a particular beef bull in a crossbreeding system with dairy cows needs to address the following criteria:

  • Acceptable conception rate
  • Acceptable calving ease
  • Add muscling and rib eye area (REA)
  • For Holstein cows – moderate skeletal size
  • For Jersey cows – add performance
  • Maintain or add marbling

The first two criteria are absolute “must haves”. No one can afford reductions in AI conception rates. Unfortunately, obtaining reliable rankings for AI sire fertility can be challenging. Semen company representatives can be invaluable resources in identifying sires proven to satisfy customers and avoid problems.

The same is true of additional problems caused by calving difficulty. The good news is the beef industry has been intensively selecting for easier calving for some time, so this is much less of a concern that it might have been in the past. Although the exact values for each beef breed will vary, setting independent culling levels to eliminate perhaps the worst 40% or so of a breed would eliminate most calving difficulty risk. Excluding the most extreme low-birth weight sires may also be prudent to reduce challenges from short gestation periods.

Once those two criteria are satisfied, the low-hanging fruit in adding value to dairy steers lies in narrowing the gap in carcass value between dairy and native cattle. That means increasing rib eye area and reducing frame size of Holstein-cross calves. Sires to be used on Jersey cows should primarily be selected on added muscle, as almost any beef cross will improve performance. Marbling also needs to be considered as it directly influences Quality Grade and carcass price. EPDs for all these traits are readily available and should be used to guide selection decisions. Selection decisions can be simplified by using one of the terminal index that are published by most beef breeds (e.g. Angus $B, Simmental TI).

Potential Pitfalls

There is a misconception that all beef genetics are created equal in terms of usefulness in creating a dairy – beef crossbred calf. Calves sired by bulls whose primary attribute is being cheap and black are viewed very skeptically by feeders and packers. Those doubts easily translate into reduced or non-existent bids. Cattle sired by specifically selected genetics, combined with excellent health status will be much more attractive compared to garden variety crossbreds, especially if accompanied by verification and backed with data.