Dairy farmers find new sources of value for calf crops
Dairies need pregnant cows to fill their milking parlors and run milk trucks. Cattle feedlots need reliable sources of feeder cattle year round to keep processing plants running. Today, with advances in genomics and animal science, the two needs can be met in different ways.
The first-ever Beef on Dairy Symposium, a one-day event co-hosted with Beef Empire Days 2021 in Garden City, Kan., Brings together dairy farmers and beef producers to discover new ways to add value to pregnancies of dairy cows.
The use of terminal crossbreeding is not new, says Justin Wagoner, beef specialist at Kansas State University. The use of sexed beef semen on dairy cows has been practiced for many years, but with more genomic information available to dairy producers, matings of beef bulls with dairy cows doubled from 2015 to 2019, says -he.
CATTLEMAN TO CATTLEMAN: Gary de Graaf, dairy farmer, owner of Jer-Z-Boyz Ranch, Pixley, Calif., Chats with Sam Hands, owner of Triangle H Feedyard, Garden City, Kan. Dairy farmers and cattle feeders are working together to bring more value to dairy calves in the beef market.
The National Association of Animal Breeders says there are potentially 1.6 million to 2 million cow-dairy crossbred calves that will be born in 2021, which is only 2% of the total calf harvest. in the United States, says Wagoner. And it is important to note that these calves do not move any beef cattle; instead, they displace dairy calves that would have already been incorporated into the beef production flow.
“The concept of terminal crossbreeding is not new, but what has changed, I think, is the focus within the dairy industry on actually improving the quality of these crossbreeds,” says -he. “Both from a carcass point of view and from a growth and genetics point of view. Crossbreed dairy calves can fetch $ 50 to $ 175 per head more than purebred dairy calves.
Wagoner calls these calves “version 2.0” of the beef-dairy cross. As the practice becomes more widely accepted, it will rely on sharing data from feedlots to the dairies from which these cattle originate.
The next step
Crossbreed beef calves are one thing, but what if dairy farmers started transplanting beef cattle embryos into their dairy cows to get a purebred beef calf to market? That’s the question Chris Sigurdson, general manager of the Minnesota Select Sires Cooperative Inc., and others at Select Sires began to ask themselves a few years ago.
COMPOSITE CATTLE: In the feeding trial at Triangle H Feedyard, Garden City, there is a dairy crossbreed cattle pen being fed alongside two HerdFlex beef embryo transplant cattle pens. Composites had an average daily gain of 3.63 pounds, while HerdFlex pens had average daily gains of 4.09 and 3.13 pounds.
“We started to explore what the next opportunity might be for them due to their success as dairy farmers and their ability to have additional pregnancies. What else could we do with these pregnancies? And this is where the idea of HerdFlex was really founded to use embryo transfer [ET]”Sigurdson says.
Select Sires is the exclusive supplier of beef embryos produced by SimVitro, a Simplot company for many years. In March 2020, Select Sires launched the HerdFlex beef embryo brand with SimVitro. The company began with a commercial trial at five dairies in Minnesota, with calves finishing at Triangle H Feedyard, Garden City, Kan.
“We are using modern embryonic technology and existing assets from dairy production systems,” says Sigurdson. “This is a beef production strategy designed to maximize the value of the veal. The dairies bring their extra pregnancies, their calf rearing know-how and their production system throughout the year.
Sigurdson says HerdFlex beef embryos are created using Simplot genetic salvage oocytes harvested from commercial black Angus dams, which are then paired with Select Sires Elite Proven sires. The goal is a viable embryo that can be implanted into a dairy cow with elite sire dominant traits for ease of calving, growth, dry matter supply and more.
Of course, the entire supply chain had to find value in these animals to compensate the dairies for their investment in making these calves, Sigurdson explains.
“Dairies only work if cows get pregnant when they need to, and we can’t disrupt that,” he says.
One of the early adopters of the HerdFlex system was Gary de Graaf of Jer-Z-Boyz Ranch, Pixley, Calif. This family-owned dairy has a herd of 5,000 Jersey cows and has been using gender-selected beef semen on its cows for several years with excellent results, he says. Fertility exceeded expectations and allowed the ranch to find value in the gestations of its inferior cows, while ensuring replacements from the superior genetics of its herd.
“Now we have an Angus embryo that goes into our mature Jersey females,” says de Graaf. “I told my two sons at that point that we don’t just milk cows anymore. We manage healthy uteruses.
He says the ranch saw ET cow gestation rates at 39% during the warm San Joaquin Valley months, when normal AI conception rates would be around 26%. And, the ranch can derive more value from the lower end of the herd’s genomics with every live calf.
Preliminary harvest data from Select Sires indicates that HerdFlex beef embryo calves can earn up to 30 times more than a day-old Jersey calf and six times more than a day-old Holstein calf; which increases if dairies choose to retain ownership.
When it comes to feeders and packers, the harvest information from the initial group of HerdFlex animals ranks them at 22% Prime and 77% Choice, with an average daily gain of just over 4 pounds per day.
There is a cost to producing this HerdFlex calf at the dairy compared to a cross beef: an additional $ 125 to $ 140. However, according to Select Sires, these HerdFlex embryonic calves bring in around $ 230 per calf of added value compared to their dairy crossbreed counterparts.
Sigurdson says the HerdFlex system is scalable and can also be used in conjunction with a cattle and dairy crossbreeding program.
“A dairy with 3,500 cows can produce around 130 or more embryonic calves per year,” says Sigurdson. “It is not a replacement for the use of beef semen in dairies, rather it is a mixture of risk levels.”
Whether it’s using beef semen or implanting beef embryos, dairy farmers now have more options to create added value with every pregnancy. And the feeders have a constant supply of cattle with traceability and proven genetics that will work on the rail.
Some bulls contributed to this article.