Raising dairy steer calves for profitable beef production

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Fed dairy steers make up about 15-20% of all fed cattle sent to market for beef production. Dairy steer or bull calf sales only account for about 1-2% of gross sales from typical dairy farm operations. Given current beef and milk prices, if dairy steers are fed to finish on the farm, they would account for about 15% of dairy farm revenues. Dairy steers are a significant contributor to the US beef supply and can be a revenue generating center for dairy farms or other farming operations.

Since the sale of newborn bull calves are a small percentage of revenue there is little financial incentive to offer them the same high quality care that the female counterparts receive. However, the future profitability of bull calves is greatly impacted by the care they receive during the first hours and days of life. Calves that do not receive adequate immunoglobulin transfer within the first few hours of life are at greater risk of diseases such as scours and pneumonia and exhibit mortality rates twice those of calves receiving adequate immunoglobulin transfer. Management recommendations for steer calves need to be the same as the heifers if they are to be healthy and vigorous.

Raising steer calves to 300 pounds from birth requires an intensive allocation of feed, labor and facility resources. Comparatively, as the dairy steer grows older labor and facility costs decrease on a per head basis and feed costs per pound of gain also decreases. Calculating breakeven analysis at various death loss rates indicate that the simple loss of the purchase price is only a small portion of losses. Utilizing this analysis indicates that calf feeding programs can be reasonably profitable if sickness and death loss are low. However, if mortality is high due to inadequate immunoglobulin transfer on a high percentage of calves, high morbidity rates and decreased animal performance result in financial losses.

Accelerated calf feeding programs are gaining popularity in an effort to raise heifers at a faster rate so they are ready for breeding at an earlier age. Accelerated calf feeding programs require uniquely different milk replacers and calf starter feeds increasing the total cost of raising calves. If rate of gain and fed efficiency are at recommended levels the cost of gain will not increase while improving overall calf health and the immunological system. Dairy managers must be aware that accelerated programs require top quality calf management and are not for everyone.

Cost of gain while feeding dairy steers to 300 pounds is considerably more expensive than at heavier weights because milk and concentrate feeds greatly increase ration cost as compared to rations with higher roughage content. Unfortunately young calves do not have a fully developed rumen and do not utilize roughages nearly as efficiently as concentrate feeds as an energy source.

Calves from 300-500 pounds are utilizing forages more efficiently than during the birth to 300 pound range. However, the rumen is not fully developed and calves less than 500 pounds will exhibit decreased performance if fed high roughage diets. Grazing steers in Michigan significantly lowers the cost of gain on steers that are six months of age and older. However, younger lighter calves cannot digest high forage diets and exhibit decreased performance. Feeding grain rations to steers while on pasture allows light calves to grow efficiently while lowering cost of gain as compared to steers fed grain diets with high quality stored hay or silage.

Using Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Gold Standards, dairy calves should weigh approximately 425 pounds at six months of age. Calves of this age and weight should have fully developed rumens and be able to fully utilize forage based rations. Grazing steers at 425 pounds and greater weight decreases the cost of gain as compared to rations with stored feed.

Dairy steers are an important part of the US beef supply. Holstein steers have the genetic ability to produce carcasses with quality comparable or better than many beef breeds. Ensuring steers receive high quality care is a critical first step in raising healthy calves that can grow rapidly and efficiently. Feeding the dairy steers can be an excellent profit center for the dairy farm or feeding operations. For more information on raising dairy steers, contact Frank Wardynski, ruminant educator with Michigan State University Extension by emailing  wardynsk@anr.msu.edu.


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