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Dairy producers should get to know beef breeding tools

Profitability of cross-bred calves can be enhanced with available genetic tools

holstein calf

A term that might sound to some like scientific jargon – "expected progeny differences" (EPDs) – could become more well-known to Ontario's dairy farmers as they pursue the breeding of a portion of their herds to beef genetics.

That's if they follow the advice of Brad Gilchrist, beef marketing and product specialist with the Semex cattle genetics organization. Gilchrist spoke at the recent Canada's Outdoor Farm Show digital livestock event.

He told the audience he aimed to change the mindset of dairy farmers who breed a portion of their herd to beef "from creating a byproduct of the dairy industry to creating a core product of the beef industry."

Why it matters: Dairy farmers have started to breed more of their females to beef sires as they make more use of sexed semen to increase the chance of females from their best genetics.

Gilchrist said sellers should learn the needs and wants of their potential buyers. With bull calves, considerations might include weight at pickup time, how they perform in the feedlot, or what the finished product is like.

"Each calf buyer may have a little different need in what they're looking for."

Those looking to meet those needs by breeding dairy cows to beef sires can start with EPDs. These are tools used by beef breed- ing associations to help farmers improve their herd's genetics depending on specific cow characteristics.

Gilchrist said dairy producers should breed for calving ease when crossing dairy to beef. But key factors to look for in EPDs when aiming to attract top prices for cross-bred calves include fewer days on feed, higher average daily gain and enhanced cuttability, "all things the beef industry does, and does with ease."

Other characteristics generally relate to these key factors. Typically, days on feed to finishing weight is higher in Holstein genetics as opposed to beef genetics. Dry matter intake is higher in Holsteins and average daily gain is lower.

Better marbling

In the finished product, the dressing percentage is approximately three per cent less in Holstein versus the average beef breed. On the flipside, Holstein genetics marble well and Jerseys even better.

Brad Gilchrist. Photo: Supplied

"Our Holstein genetics are going to do poorly on a conversion (feed to weight gain) standpoint," said Gilchrist, "but they're going to create a really high-quality product."

Breeds promoted as a good match for Holstein genetics in crossbreeds, like balancing growth and frame, uniform coat colour and carcass quality, are Limousin, Angus, Charolais, Simmental and Belgian Blue. Charolais crosses nicely with Jersey.

Wagyu and Angus typically have lower birth weights, so calving ease should be less of a concern for dairy producers. Thus performance and muscle shape traits can receive greater emphasis when choosing sires.

When selecting from beef breeds with higher average birth weights, calving ease should get more focus, Gilchrist advised. However, producers should remember that low birth weights tend to correlate with poor performance in the feedlot.

"We don't want really small calves that don't perform," he said, but big calves that have been through a difficult birth aren't always thrifty at the time of sale.

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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