Beef sire selection for crossbred dairy beef cattle production

Select a beef sire that excels in economically relevant traits.

A few Angus × Holstein steer calves. Photo taken by: Alex Yost
A few Angus × Holstein steer calves. Photo taken by: Alex Yost

Mating dairy cows with a beef sire to produce terminal crossbred dairy beef calves has become a popular topic of discussion in the dairy and cattle feeding industries. Choosing the appropriate beef sire to mate to dairy cows may be the most important decision impacting the profitability of crossbred dairy beef cattle in the beef supply chain. For more information on this visit the MSU Extension dairy and beef pages.

As we begin to re-evaluate crossbred dairy beef production, people often wonder why crossbreeding dairy cows to beef sires has not gained popularity in the past. This article will review some of the challenges that have prevented this crossbreeding strategy from becoming popular practice and the import role of beef sire selection in making this crossbreeding strategy a success.

In their respective breeds, U.S. dairy cattle are quite uniform due to the intense genetic selection pressure for milk yield and other important dairy traits. Whereas commercial beef cattle have more genetic diversity due to the frequency of crossbreeding within the industry. A benefit of raising dairy steers for beef production is their predictable feedlot performance, uniform carcass size, and marbling ability. However, when compared with beef steers, purebred dairy steers offer some challenges, such as a lesser average daily gain and feed efficiency, which requires more days in the feedlot and additional feed.

Additionally, purebred dairy steers often produce carcasses that can be either too long (i.e., Holsteins) or too light (i.e., Jerseys). Purebred dairy steers are often lightly muscled, which leads to a lesser dressing percentage, irregular loin muscle shape, and carcass retail yield when compared with beef steers. For crossbred dairy beef cattle, there tends to be an extreme amount of variation in feedlot performance and the resulting carcass conformation between animals or within groups. For example, some cattle more closely resemble beef cattle, while others more closely resemble dairy steers.

When deciding which beef sire to breed to your dairy cows it is important to select a bull that is above average for multiple traits of economic importance. These traits of economic importance may vary depending on your position in the supply chain (i.e. if you are producing and selling a newborn calf, selling a feeder calf, feeding and selling finished cattle, trying to sell beef through a niche market, or a combination of these factors if retaining ownership).

Some commonly measured traits to consider are calving ease, growth (weaning/yearling weights), yield grade/fat thickness, ribeye area (REA), and marbling. Some breed associations have created indices specifically for mating beef sires with dairy cows based on certain economic traits. For the dairy farmer, calving ease is an especially important selection trait. Ideally, the dairy farmer would like their cows to give birth unassisted to a healthy calf without compromising any future pregnancies. Growth traits, such as weaning and yearling weight, are important because calves and finished cattle are often marketed on a live weight basis. Therefore, a heavier animal is worth more money at the time of sale. Selecting traits that consider the animal’s ability to deposit muscle in relation to fat, such as ribeye area and fat thickness, are also very important.

As previously mentioned, purebred dairy steers lack considerable muscle and have a lower retail yield compared with native beef cattle; therefore, the infusion of beef genetics should aim to increase the retail yield or beef producing ability of crossbred dairy beef cattle. Lastly, marbling potential is another important consideration, as there are monetary incentives for cattle with premium quality grades that are driven by consumer demand for a high-quality beef eating experience.

There are many different beef breeds in the U.S. with some cattle breeds excelling in certain traits compared with others. Each breed association typically displays the expected progeny differences (EPD) of that breed at a different base point compared with other breeds. For example, the EPDs of a Simmental and Limousin bull cannot be directly compared. However, on a yearly basis, the United States Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC) releases across breed EPD adjustment factors as a tool for cattle producers to compare 18 different beef breeds of cattle on a similar basis (www.beefimprovement.org).

As an example, consider a Simmental bull with a REA EPD of 1.12 in2 and a Limousin bull with a REA EPD of 1.34 in2. The across breed adjustment factor for REA is 1.16 in2 for Simmental and 0.65 in2 for Limousin. The across breed REA EPD for the Simmental bull is 1.12 + 1.16 = 2.28 in2 and the for the Limousin bull is 1.34 + 0.65 = 1.99 in2. If both the Simmental and Limousin bull were mated to similar cows of another breed, the expected REA difference between the offspring would be 2.28 – 1.99 = 0.29 in2, or 0.29 in2.  Therefore, the Simmental-sired offspring would be expected to have a 0.29 in2 larger REA compared with the Limousin-sired offspring.

Overall, it is very important to select for economically relevant traits that will complement with the mated dairy breed to produce crossbred dairy beef calves that are uniform, perform well in the feedlot, and have a beef retail yield more similar to commercial beef cattle.

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