Breeding of Holstein dairy cows to Holstein bulls has hit an all-time-low according to the Canadian Dairy Network — a clear indication of the growing popularity of using sexed semen for top milk-producing herd members and using beef semen on the rest.
The trend is not confined to Canada. A recent article published by the University of Wisconsin’s extension department outlines the benefits and pitfalls of a dairy-to-beef breeding program.
Why it matters: Sexed semen technology provides a clear path for dairy producers to maintain and enhance their herd’s top-producing bloodlines (there’s a 90 per cent chance of attaining a heifer calf), but they need to be able to recoup the added cost through a combination of increased milk revenue and revenue from the non-sexed semen offspring.
Recently published CDN (now part of Lactanet) data confirms the increasing popularity of sexed-semen programs among Canadian dairies. Lactanet Chief Services Officer Brian Van Doormaal cited a database of dairy herd inseminations dating back to 2000, to which more than 1.5 million new records are added each year.
“Prior to 2005,” Van Doormaal explained, “the use of Holstein semen to breed Holsteins was consistently 98 per cent but this dropped slightly to 96 per cent over the period from 2005 to 2013. More recently, however, the rate of this decreasing trend has been faster to hit 92 per cent for 2018.”
Up to the point the article was written just over two-thirds of the way through 2019, levels had reached what Van Doormaal described as “an all‐time low” of 89 per cent of Holsteins bred to Holstein bulls. “The use of beef on dairy was consistently below three per cent before 2013, but has now surpassed the 10 per cent level so far in 2019.”
At the Guelph-based Semex Alliance of beef and dairy genetics marketing companies, sales of beef semen increased by 34 per cent in 2018.
According to the organization’s Marketing Communications Specialist Brenda Lee, this came as no surprise. Semex’s leadership recognized years ago that a switch to a sexed semen/beef breed programs had the potential to “help fill the demand for beef in the marketplace and (simultaneously) increases the dairyman’s profitability by better managing heifer inventory, feed costs as well as the herd’s overall genetic strategy.”
Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs beef and northern economic development specialist Barry Potter was also early to recognize the potential in the trend. In 2015, Potter helped write a factsheet on the topic along with Beef Farmers of Ontario’s Dan Ferguson.
Four years later, Potter cautioned the financial numbers attached to that factsheet are now dated, but the concept of boosting profitability through a beef-breeding program is not. And, on top of that, “the reality is that, with genomics now, you can do a lot better job of breeding your better dairy cows.”
On this matter, both Van Doormaal and Potter agree that, in 2019, it’s genomics that’s driving the continued growth of the trend as much as sexed semen.
“At a current cost of $33 per animal, producers are better able to determine which young heifer calves are not worthwhile raising to enter the milking herd, which then saves significant dollars otherwise spent on rearing costs,” says Van Doormaal.
The University of Wisconsin Extension article suggests that when dairy steers are fed and managed properly, they often deliver comparable quality to their beef-bred counterparts and less external fat at the 12th to 13th rib. Thus beef-sire selection for ribeye, carcass weight and frame size may need to be prioritized more than marbling.”
But the big attraction, for beef buyers, of animals cross-bred to dairy breeds is the consistency of the carcass across numerous animals.
“It makes a great branded product,” Potter said, because dairy genetics are pretty inbred, so the result is a consistent and uniform product.
There already is some branded product in the United States and Europe using dairy-to-beef genetics, but not in Canada. Potter sees this as a potential growth area if someone were to develop such a branded program.
These benefits, though, can all go out the window if dairy farmers aren’t deliberate in the beef cross-breeding program. If they choose beef sires based on non-carcass factors, such as calving ease, they’ll be much less able to assure consistent outcomes for their buyers.
“Lack of group uniformity has been identified as a drawback to dairy-beef crosses,” wrote the authors of the University of Wisconsin article. “That’s primarily due to random sire usage with no consideration to carcass traits and improper health management.”
Semex’s Lee says her organization has taken into account the importance placed on calving ease by many dairy producers, and included it as a factor in its “BeefYield” group of sire selections. She also agrees, though, that genomics has become increasingly important in choosing which females should be targeted for beef semen, and Semex has been “training our staff to ensure they can assist in the process.”