A drive through a Wulf Cattle feedyard reveals a scene common to most large-scale, commercial feedlots. As far as the eye can see, pen after pen of healthy, heavy-muscled, colored cattle calmly alternate between eating and resting. Eventually, they will reach the packer in uniform groups that will produce high-quality beef cuts for the consumer’s plate.
But there is a secret about these cattle that is not readily apparent to the observer: several thousand of these animals are half Jersey.
Their presence in the feedlot is the result of a new movement emerging in U.S. dairy genetics programs — breeding a percentage of the herd to beef sires to accelerate the top end of the herd’s dairy genetics, while capturing a premium for the calves on the lower end.
A groundbreaking experiment
The half-Jersey animals at Wulf Cattle, headquartered near Morris, Minn, are the result of an idea that germinated in early 2010.
Jerry Wulf, President of Wulf Cattle, says he and his team were brainstorming possibilities to secure a more steady supply of high-quality feeder calves and keep their combined 30,000-head feedlot sites operating at continuous capacity. At the same time, their neighbors at Riverview Dairy, who were milking 8,000 Jerseys just a few miles away, were searching for ways to add value to their Jersey bull calves. Their collective idea: cross Jersey dams with Limousin sires and send the offspring — steers and heifers — to the feedlot.
“The value of Jersey bull calves is virtually zero,” says Adam Zeltwanger, Beef Team Manager at Riverview Dairy.
“We were keenly interested in trying a strategy that would generate some profit from those calves. With the availability of sexed semen, we are able to produce more than enough purebred replacement heifers for our herd, so we wanted to increase the profitability of the rest of the calves.”
The crossbred calves started arriving in March of 2011. After being reared on a Texas calf ranch for 18 weeks, they entered the Wulf Cattle feedyard in Minnesota and finished in an efficient timeframe of 15 to 16 months of age. As the first group of finished steers were marketed starting in June 2012, the Wulf team followed them to the rail at Tyson Foods, Dakota City, Neb. The results were impressive: 92 percent Yield Grade 1 and 2; 61.5 percent Average Dressing Percentage; 50 percent Choice grade; and all carcasses graded Beef, with no yellow fat or small ribeyes. “The cutout data confirmed that we had a winning strategy going,” says Wulf. “The packer told us to keep sending as many as we could.”
That directive led to an expansion of the concept.
Wulf Cattle now is partnering with Genex Cooperative, Inc. of Shawano, Wis., in a program called “Breeding to Feeding” to take the concept to other dairies. Genex collects and distributes semen from Wulf Limousin bulls and makes contractual arrangements with dairies. Consultants from Genex work with each herd to develop a breeding strategy that fits their genetics program and long-term goals. The dairies agree to send their crossbred calves to a Wulfapproved calf ranch, and then are guaranteed purchase by Wulf Cattle at a premium price.
“Breeding to Feeding is a conception-to-consumption strategy that fits current trends in both the U.S. dairy and beef industries,” says Roy Wilson, associate vice president for national accounts at Genex. “The U.S. beef cow herd is shrinking, and the country’s nine million dairy cows can play an important role in maintaining our beef supply demands.”
Indeed, USDA data indicate that the U.S. cattle inventory dropped last year to its lowest level since 1952, after a year of severe drought in the Southwest. Add to that this year’s Midwestern drought, plus stiff competition for land and other resources, and it is clear that the U.S. beef cow herd may not be rebuilding any time soon, if ever.
At the same time, many U.S. dairy herds are becoming static in their growth goals. Embryo transfer, sexed semen and excellent reproductive efficiency make it possible for herds to generate all of the replacement heifers they need with just a fraction of their highest-quality females. Selling surplus heifers is one way to capture additional income, but that often leaves herds at the mercy of the fluctuating export market, and is a longer-term payoff.
“Dairies have to raise heifers for many more months to sell them as replacements, compared to selling them as feeder calves,” says Wilson. “Lenders now are advising producers to carry inventories of 0.9 heifers for each milking cow, compared to previous recommendations of 1.2 to 1.5 heifers. They want dairies to trim the overhead required to feed extra heifers in a climate of very high feed costs.”
Also considering the minimal to no value for Jersey bull calves, it is easy to see why dairy producers are readily embracing the program. Wulf and Genex currently have Breeding to Feeding arrangements with dairy herds in six states, and the list is growing.
A host of benefits
One of the primary concerns as the project took root was calving ease.
“If we found that this program adversely affected our calving ease numbers, that would have been the end of the experiment,” says Zeltwanger. But to the contrary, thousands of births in the program have resulted in an average birth weight of 79.6 pounds, with 98.8 percent unassisted calvings.
Of the major continental beef breeds, Limousin has the lowest birthweight, one of the many reasons why it was selected as the preferred breed for the program. “A question we often are asked is ‘Why not Angus?’” says Wulf. “It’s true that Angus cattle are excellent feed converters and have good marbling. But they are lighter muscled. Limousin genetics allow us to offset extremely light muscling in the Jersey breed and produce an animal with excellent feed efficiency, dressing percentage, red meat yield and ribeye size and shape.”
Zeltwanger has learned from immigrant dairymen in the Midwest that crossbreeding for beef animals is a practice that has been employed in Europe for two to three decades, due in part to a similarly shrinking beef cow herd there. “Limousin genetics are used widely there, for the same reasons,” he says.
He adds that conception rate for Limousin semen at Riverview is currently 49 percent on fourth and fifth services, compared to 43 percent for dairy sexed semen on the first three breedings. “One of our initial strategies was to breed problem breeders — those open after three services to sexed semen — to Limousin,” he shares.“We think capturing the heterosis of crossbreeding helps create a more vigorous embryo, plus this approach selects poorer fertility out of the dairy herd. It promotes keeping newer genetics in the herd, as well, because those more challenging breeders often are older cows.”
In the future, many dairies are likely to use genomics to separate the genetics in the herd, as is the case for Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy, Kewaunee, Wis. Chris Szydel, herd manager for the 4,500-cow dairy, says the first cows in the herd were inseminated with Limousin semen in September 2012. The Pagel herd is made up primarily of Holsteins and Holstein-Jersey cross animals, making the breeding strategy a little different decision than for a purebred Jersey herd, but one that was ultimately deemed valuable.
“We don’t want to create more heifers than we need, and this approach allows us to generate the best-quality dairy replacements, while capturing more value from the lower end of the herd,” he shares. Szydel says they expect to capture at least a $50-per-head premium for the crossbred beef calves.
How a dairy chooses to implement the breeding program is an individual-herd strategy.
At Riverview Dairy, approximately 40 percent of the herd currently is being bred to Limousin. In the Pagel herd, the long-term strategy is to breed the top 25 percent of the herd’s replacement heifers to sexed semen, and the lowest 25 percent of the lactating cows to Limousin.
In any case, Zeltwanger says dairies are a great place to produce beef calves. “Dairy cow nutrition is extremely consistent, and well-managed dairies have excellent protocols in place for colostrums delivery and newborn calf care,” he says. “It is an ideal environment for getting calves off to a healthy start.”
Wulf adds that robust health is another key advantage of the calves they have raised so far.
“They do extremely well at the calf ranch, and have lower-than-average respiratory pull rate and death loss in the feedlot,” he says. In the future, he is excitedly anticipating the performance of the three-way crosses resulting from Holstein-Jersey dams, noting that he views that combination as nearly ideal for capturing hybrid vigor. Wulf also believes there is tremendous potential for the crossbred females to make excellent beef brood cows with superior milk production.
“It’s a game-changer,” declares the longtime cattleman. “This is an approach to cattle production that is a win for everyone, from the dairyman to the cattleman to the packer and ultimately to the consumer.”