Breeding strategy bringing dairy-beef crosses to meat market

Advent of sexed semen means more dairy cattle being bred to beef

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The father-and-son duo of George and Heath Taylor believe they have an ideal strategy for dairy farmers taking up the use of sexed semen for breeding: Wagyu beef.

“They’ve got two-thirds of their herd that they’re not breeding for replacements,” George said recently at the family’s Thorndale beef operation, which shares space with the somewhat more well-known Purple Hill Country Music Hall. “The math is pretty simple.”

Why it matters: Dairy farmers are moving toward sexed semen to get female replacements from their top-producing cows, but that means other females have lower value. That’s meant a search for greater value options, including using beef semen.

Taylor’s assertion is based on what he believes is a premium price available for meat with Wagyu genetics. But whether dairy farmers use high-end semen from the niche-market Japanese breed or the cheapest possible dose from their semen supplier’s Hereford line-up, one thing’s for sure: The practice of breeding a significant portion of the milking herd to beef genetics is rising in Ontario.

Dan Ferguson, manager of producer relations and the co-ordinator for Verified Beef Plus for Beef Farmers of Ontario (BFO), says there have been two main approaches taken by dairy farmers moving heavily into sexed semen. Some have decided the increased costs will be offset by improvements on the milk production side, and have continued selling calves at two weeks or less into the veal market. But others have decided to recoup those extra costs by expanding their own infrastructure to raise the beef crossbreeds to finishing weight.

The fact some of the crossbred offspring continue to follow the traditional bob-calf route was evident during the early March annual general meeting of Veal Farmers of Ontario (VFO). A dairy farmer in the audience asked panelists whether they would pay more for crossbred calves.

Panelist Tom Oudshoorn of Auburn responded, “we get more gains out of a beef cross,” before adding that “they’re a little nicer calves, a little healthier.” Oudshoorn, though, prefers to buy crossbreds in groups so he can house them in their own pen, since they socialize and grow differently than Holsteins.

But even back in 2015, Ferguson was aware of the possibility that some dairy farmers would approach the advent of sexed semen with an eye to diversify their operations. It was then that the BFO staffer joined forces with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs to co-author a fact sheet about raising dairy-beef crossbreds for beef entitled “Investigating New Marketing Options to Increase Beef Production in Ontario.”

It can be found at ontariobeef.com.

Ferguson cautioned that the sample budget section of the fact sheet is now out of date, and that anyone penciling out a possible expansion into finishing crossbreds should make sure they get up-to-date estimates. But beyond the numbers, the fact sheet’s assertions remain intact, he said.

Equally important though, Ferguson said, BFO’s decision to publish it was another tool to help Ontario beef processors gain ample supplies.

“We felt that, if all of those calves (from sexed semen breeding strategies) started dropping into the veal market, they would get lost to a different harvest supply chain than what the beef producers rely on.”

Looking back from early 2019, Ferguson reflected that “things turn around very quickly in our industry.” Over the past six months, there has been an influx of cull dairy cows into the market, and they have displaced at the packing plants some of the capacity for finished animals. As a result, a lot of animals, both full beef and crossbred beef, have ended up getting heavier on the farms than the ideal scenario.

Ontario Livestock Exchange general manager Larry Witzel confirmed this when he made a presentation to the VFO annual meeting.

But over the longer term, once the glut of cull dairy cows dies down, Ferguson remains bullish on a strong supply of dairy-beef crossbreds raised to finish in feedlots — either on dairy farms or on specialized finishing farms.

“We don’t have a good way of tracking (crossbreds versus straight beef), so you’d have a hard time finding out how much of that (slaughterhouse) capacity is being taken up by your dairy beef,” he said. And there’s no way of knowing exactly how many new finishing barns have been added on dairy farms, or beef feedlots converted for only dairy-beef crossbreds.

For the dairy farmer, Ferguson suggested that a decision to build or renovate comes from being presented with “a choice between getting $150 for the calves no matter if they’re crossbred or not, or adding 16 months to the animal and selling it for $1,500.”

Beef producers who have recently specialized into raising dairy animals have typically developed good relationships with a group of smaller-scale nursery barns, often operated on diversified farms including a lot of Mennonite farms, with whom they can contract to raise the calves to the 400-500 pound weight. Then they finish them in feedlots.

There are examples in Europe, Ferguson adds, of retailers developing programs specifically to market meat from dairy beef crosses. This, he says, is because the dairies can deliver “a very predictable crossbred animal with favourable carcass qualities.”

George Taylor believes choosing Wagyu genetics for dairy crossbreds would be a sure way of gaining access to a market for the meat. From his experience crossbreeding to the Purple Hill farm’s Fleckvieh, Black Angus and Simmental genetics, Wagyu consistently improves marbling and texture of the finished carcass.

“With these crossbreds, if the meat (from a particular family line) was Triple A, (Wagyu genetics) would take it to Prime,” he said. “And that’s on a consistent basis.” He believes it would do the same for dairy crossbreds.

About the author

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Stew Slater

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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