Stabilizing Jersey Calf Prices for Beef Markets with Crossbreeding

A pen of Jersey-beef cross feeder cattle at Full Circle Jersey outside Dalhart, Texas. ( Wyatt Bechtel )

Dairy bull calves can sometimes be one of the biggest profit losers on a farm if retained for too long. It becomes even more burdensome when looking at Jersey bull calves that have been difficult to market to beef cattle raisers. To help address the issues a Texas Jersey dairy and a Colorado beef breeder have partnered up to create calves that work in the feedlot and on consumers’ plates.

Sieto Mellema already had experience raising commercial and registered beef cows for several years before starting Full Circle Jersey in 2007 outside Dallhart, Texas.  For a few years Mellema bred all of his Jerseys back to dairy semen on the 3,500 head dairy.

Then in 2014, Mellema looked into changing up his breeding program and adding beef genetics to the mix.

“The way we got started is because Jersey bull calves weren’t worth anything,” Mellema says. His goal was to “make something out of nothing” referencing the price commanded by Jersey bull calves.

The year prior in 2013, Mellema started using a composite breed called Stabilizer in his beef cow herd and became a cooperator herd for Leachman Cattle of Colorado, owned and operated by Lee Leachman.

Mellema called Leachman one day to let him know he was going to artificially inseminate some Jersey cows with beef semen and that he’d like to buy a bull for collection.

“I said ‘I’ll do you one better, let me send you semen so we can progeny test bulls.’ So we started doing that together,” Leachman says.

Since 1990, Mellema was already using Leachman genetics in his commercial beef herd and was retaining ownership on calves, so he knew the return he could get on his investment.

At first Mellema didn’t have a goal of the end product for the Jersey-beef cross. His objective was originally to market calves at a weaned weight of 400 lb. or more.

“I couldn’t get them sold economically well enough,” Mellema says because feedlots were leery of the “compensatory gain of a dairy calf.”

This led Mellema to retaining ownership on the calves feeding at feedlots in Texas and Nebraska to then market on a carcass basis using the meat packers’ grid formula. About half of the calves have gone through Cargill packing plants, while the others have gone to National Beef and Tyson Foods. “If you’ve got any kind of quality in them, to put the cattle on the grid is a no brainer,” Mellama relates.

Brandon Beavers, who manages the beef operation at Full Circle Jersey, believes the Jersey-cross calves can outperform most conventionally breed beef cattle when it comes to carcass quality.

“We feel like we have added value to a product that can be improved upon. We’ve got a lot of data that shows with the right genetics and feeding program that the dairy-beef crossbreeds can perform with the quality, and provide consistent product that is desirable for the consumer,” Beavers says.

The dairy-beef breeding program has been going on for nearly five years and the results have been promising. Through the breeding program Leachman and Mellema have been able to test 57 sires and have carcass data from more than 2,500 cattle.

The program has not only helped Mellema improve the returns on his Jersey-cross bull calves, it has also aided Leachman in producing better bulls. Thanks to the progeny testing Leachman has received data on calving ease, growth, feed conversion and carcass merit. This has helped Leachman prove the Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) on calves sired through the breeding program, something that can be more difficult to do using commercial beef herds.

“Even though we’re crossing on Jersey cows the differences we saw in beef cattle translate, so that is cool,” Leachman says. 

Mellema adds that it has been interesting have all the different data from the program and it has helped drive decision making.

During the time of this breeding program seven beef breeds have been crossed with Jerseys, including Angus, Limousin, Simmental, Red Angus and Stabilizer bulls.

Mellema and Beavers have observed that in the grand scheme the choice of breed hasn’t mattered as much as the individual bull.

“For the most part it isn’t breed specific as much as individual characteristics. If you get the right bulls then various breeds will work,” Beavers adds.

“We can predict outcomes,” Mellema says after breeding with various bulls. With more data on the individual bull there is a better idea of the feed efficiency and carcass quality and yield that can be obtained.

Leachman echoes those thoughts, “We’re starting to zero in on where the money is made in that process. In other words, what beef genetics complement a Jersey? What beef genetics complement a Holstein? What about a half Holstein-Jersey? We’re starting to think about selecting beef genetics specifically for those purposes.”

From the dairy-beef project Leachman has showed that the calves crossed with Stabilizer bulls have netted the best results (see chart). In a comparison of 200 Leachman Stabilizer sired calves versus 1,599 other beef sired calves there proved to be an advantage for the composite breed by $57.38 per Jersey-Stabilizer calf. 

Chart (Leachman Full Circle Data)

Source: Leachman Cattle of Colorado

There are inherent problems that come with raising dairy-beef crosses. “One of the issues with dairy is the bull calves that are born aren’t as efficient as a beef breed,” Beavers says.

However, with breeding programs like Leachman and Mellema have been doing there could be improvements in the future.

“I think you’re going to see more focus in the dairy industry on their feed efficiency function,” Leachman believes.

Something that Beavers thinks could be an advantage for Jersey-cross calves is the increasing carcass size of beef cattle. A Jersey-cross calf sired by a beef bull wouldn’t have the large ribeye area of a beef calf. With increasing ribeye area it means cuts have to be cut thinner, so the beef can be more difficult to cook optimally. This would aid in reducing beef cut size which has been a complaint of some consumers and restaurants.

“It seems like the consumers are looking for a more petite steak, a smaller cut,” Beavers says. “We feel like we can add value and excel in quality.”