Beef Feedlot Extension Educator
University of Minnesota Beef Team
Ask any cattle feeder about their experiences feeding dairy steers and you will likely get some snickers, sighs, and shrugs.
Feeding dairy steers presents a set of challenges beyond those of feeding typical beef cattle. Some of the specific challenges associated with feeding dairy steers compared with beef steers are an increased susceptibility to bloat and other digestive disturbances, higher death loss and morbidity, higher maintenance requirements which lead to poorer feed conversions, and greater vulnerability to inclement weather.
Despite these challenges, there are a number of opportunities associated with feeding dairy steers such as a low initial investment, predictable feed intake and gain, and a consistent supply of calves available throughout the year.
One of the first things that any cattle feeder should recognize when determining whether to feed dairy steers is that they are significantly different than typical feedlot cattle, and therefore require special management and consideration.
Because dairy steers retain the large frame and body capacity that is desired in many milking cows, they have the ability to eat a high amount of feed, and require a lot of feed energy to fill out that large frame.
For this reason many dairy steers, particularly Holstein steers, should be placed on feed at a younger age and lighter weight than typical beef cattle.
Many calf-fed finishing systems for Holstein steers will place steers in the feedlot at 300-400 pounds of body weight. This is 200-400 pounds lighter than we would normally see beef calves placed in the feedlot, and will result in Holstein steers spending nearly an entire year in the feedlot before reaching a market weight of 1,300-1,500 pounds.
This early entry in the feedlot will allow Holstein steers to consume a high-energy diet at a young age. Without this, Holstein steers will continue to grow their frame without adding lean mass, and will require added days on feed to become “finished.”
Speaking of “finished,” what does that mean for a Holstein steer? For beef-breed cattle, we often target an endpoint where the animal has reached a USDA Choice quality grade with a USDA yield grade of 3 or less, and a carcass weight of less than 950 or 1,000 pounds depending on the packing plant.
Anything poorer in terms of either quality grade or yield grade, or a carcass weight of greater than those listed will result in discounts at the packing plant, particularly if the cattle are sold in the meat or on a grid marketing system.
Although these discounts may not be directly seen when selling live, cattle buyers still have these numbers in mind when placing a live bid on cattle.
For Holstein steers, the goals should be the same, which again brings us back to the importance of getting Holstein calves on a high-energy diet at a young age. Without this, it will be difficult for Holstein steers to reach a Choice yield grade by the time they reach a 1,000 pound carcass weight.
One common misconception is that dairy steers do not grade well. This thought is most likely a remnant of old-style dairy steer feeding where they would be grazed or backgrounded until they were around 800 pounds, and then placed on a high-energy finishing ration.
In this system steers would reach extremely heavy weights before they were able to deposit enough marbling to reach a Choice quality grade. With current calf-fed systems, Holsteins now produce quality grades that can meet, and often exceed, those of beef cattle.
The calf-fed feeding system for dairy steers may have a negative impact on yield grade, however. Yield grade is negatively affected by carcass weight, backfat, and kidney, pelvic, and heart fat (KPH), and positively affected by ribeye area. Although dairy steers will generally have less backfat than beef steers, they will also have a higher carcass weight, higher KPH, and a smaller ribeye, resulting in a higher (poorer) yield grade.
Holsteins will also have a lower dressing percentage than beef breeds due to a higher proportion of offal and bone. Typical dressing percentages for Holstein steers may range from 58-61 percent, whereas beef steers may range from 61-65 percent. Because dairy steers are placed in the feedlot at such a young age and weight, they require special attention in terms of health programs. Death loss and morbidity are generally higher with calf-fed Holsteins compared with calf-fed beef calves.
Producers should work closely with their veterinarian to develop a solid health receiving protocol for calves, and should closely monitor calves throughout the feeding program. To further enhance the health of dairy steers, properly designed and well-maintained facilities are critical. Over the past few years we have seen many monoslope barns and slatted floor barns built in Minnesota, and this has allowed many producers to effectively feed dairy steers through harsh winters. These types of facilities not only allow for protection from the elements in the winter, but also provide shade and protection from the heat in the summer.
As has been mentioned numerous times in this article, it is important to get Holstein calves on a high-energy ration at a young age to ensure that they will reach the targeted quality grade before they become too heavy. The energy for this ration may come from a variety of sources; in Minnesota and surrounding areas the most economical sources will often be corn and corn byproducts.
Research has shown that distillers grains can be utilized in Holstein finishing diets at up to 40 percent of the diet dry matter without affecting live performance or carcass traits. Wet corn gluten feed is also a viable option, particularly in situations where bloat and/or acidosis may be a concern.
Whole corn may not be used a lot in beef finishing systems but can be utilized effectively in dairy steer feeding systems. This is due to young calves chewing corn more thoroughly than older cattle, therefore reducing corn particle size and increasing digestibility.
Regardless of what primary energy source is fed, roughage should still be included, although lower roughage inclusions may be possible with whole corn feeding than with processed corn. Roughage inclusions of 5-7 percent of dry matter are typical in dairy steer finishing diets that contain whole corn.
Technologies such as implants, ionophores, and beta-agonists likely have a greater impact on dairy steer feeding than beef cattle feeding and should be utilized to maximize productivity. Because of the increased days on feed with dairy steer feeding, a three or even four implant regimen may be utilized.
It is important to determine the estimated days on feed and then count backwards to find the appropriate date for terminal implant and then the earlier implants. Long-acting implants may be useful in these situations to reduce the number of times that a dairy steer needs to be processed.
Finally, it is important to know ahead of time what marketing options exist for finished dairy steers.
Some packing plants have specific programs designed for dairy steers, and more specifically for Holstein steers, while some other plants may not accept dairy steers at all.
Contacting packing plant personnel , feed company representatives or extension educators will help in determining what marketing options exist.
There is no question that feeding dairy steers presents a unique, and sometimes difficult, set of challenges when compared to feeding traditional beef steers. However, with proper facilities, health programs, nutrition, management, and marketing, great opportunities exist to turn a solid profit when feeding dairy steers.
For more information on this and other beef-related topics, please visit the Beef Team Web site at http://www.extension.umn.edu/beef .