How to feed crossbred beef and dairy calves

Raising crossbred beef calves isn’t just a fad in the dairy industry, says Troy Wistuba, vice president of feed and additive technical improvement at Purina’s Center for Animal Nutrition.

“Currently, there are approximately 2.5 to 3 million beef crosses in the US,” Wistuba notes. “There are projections that the number will probably end up around 6 million.”

Dairy farmers are embracing this management strategy as it helps reduce risk by diversifying income.

Wistuba and Purina researchers in Gray Summit, Mo., are focused on helping farmers bring dairy and beef crossbreeds to market in a productive, efficient and profitable way. That requires a deeper look at nutrition from birth.

Milk Replacer Research Results

Crossbred dairy beef calves are like purebred dairy calves: they are fed milk replacer early in life. However, with more beef genetics in their design, the question arises as to how much milk replacer is needed.

Over the past three years, Olivia Genther-Schroeder, Purina Dairy Feed’s senior manager of research and development, and other researchers have looked at nutritional needs specifically for crossbred beef and dairy calves.

Purina’s Animal Nutrition Center purchases calves that are primarily Holstein-Angus crosses. However, they also incorporate Red Angus, Simmental and Charolais beef genetics. Also, they have some Jersey based calves of Angus and Limousin genetics.

The resulting calves were fed different nutritional programs for dairy and beef crosses and compared to similar programs fed purebred dairy calves.

They evaluated the “nutrition blueprint,” which includes the pounds of milk replacer fed per day. Genther-Schroeder says the research focused on the first 12 weeks of a dairy cow’s life, trying to determine the right amount for the right amount of time.

The research found that while these crosses do very well at high levels of nutrition, such as 2½ pounds of milk replacer per day, the ideal schedule is 1.8 pounds, fed to at least 8 weeks of age. “That’s really been our best balance between cost and performance,” adds Genther-Schroeder.

Growing dairy calves

Genther-Schroeder notes that the goal of breeding dairy and beef cattle crosses is to produce “a consistent, muscular calf.”

Fed the same high level of nutrition, or 1.5-1.8 pounds of milk replacer per day, crossbred beef calves have higher body weight, lower hip height, and larger rib eye area compared to with Holstein calves, according to Purina research.

“We see 60 percent more rib eye area on that dairy cow cross calf,” he notes. “Which makes sense. We’re adding beef genetics, and those genetics are designed for muscle.”

Genther-Schroeder says farmers should add a 20% protein starter feed, as dairy and beef crosses are building a lot of muscle. Calves also perform better, resulting in reduced cost per pound of gain when fed 1.5-1.8 pounds of milk replacer per day.

However, farmers should resist the temptation to wean early and stick to eight to nine weeks, similar to purebred Holstein calves. Taking their milk replacer away too soon requires more dry feed, and these young beef and dairy crosses have not developed a large enough rumen to support it.

way to the goal

Genther-Schroeder says that Purina Animal Nutrition, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Land O’Lakes Inc., has a limited amount of completion data at this time.

Right now the industry average start to finish at 1500lbs is 19 months for a Holstein. In Purina research results, dairy calves following a nutrition plan that gives them 1.5 to 2.5 pounds of milk replacer per day and starting feed with 18% to 22% of protein helps reduce that time period to 13.1 months.

Comparing a typical commercial feeding plan to that higher level of nutrition, research finds that more dairy calves make it to harvest. Genther-Schroeder adds that more of those calves qualify as Choice.

“That’s really the goal at the end of the day,” he adds. “What can we do early in a calf’s life that will hopefully impact the finish later on?”

Beef crossbreeding dairy cow on a pasture operation

Research continues into how crossbred dairy cow calves perform on pasture.

Wistuba points to an Oklahoma State University project that places crossbred dairy cow calves in a pasture storage operation and follows the animals from when they enter the feed yard as a yearling feeder to 1,500-pound crop. .

“Because these crosses have a different rate of tissue growth,” he explains, “we don’t know how they will perform on turf. That’s one of the things we’re trying to figure out with the collaborative investigation with the state of Oklahoma.”

He points out that some pasture-finished beef calves grow larger and cannot run on the rail of the harvesting facility.

“They end up looking more like Holsteins than beef cattle, which means those cattle probably won’t finish until they’re 1,600 to 1,700 pounds and won’t fit on the rail,” he says. “That will be bad for the industry.”

Keeping crossbred dairy and beef calves performing, looking and cutting more like beef cattle will offer more opportunities for cattle producers.