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.