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The growing trend of beef x dairy

At the 2022 Cattle Industry Convention, producers learned how genetic technology can impact their operations during the “Big Picture Outcomes for the Beef X Dairy Trend” session. Over the last few years, the idea of breeding dairy cows with beef bulls has gained momentum.

Jerry Wulf is part of a team that has dairy and beef operations in six states and works to optimize the genetics of beef and dairy cattle. 

Wulf Cattle began more than 50 years ago, selling Limousin and “LimFlex” — an Angus hybrid — seedstock. The operation works with both beef and dairy animals and has a system called “Breeding to Feeding” that focuses on joining the genetics of dairy and feeder cattle. 

The program starts with a female Limousin from the Wulf herd, and the prospective sires are evaluated on a sire inventory index. They select genetic lines that are predicted to perform the best on feedyards and in dairies, and the bulls are evaluated every 30 days for fertility. A bull must pass three rounds of fertility testing to become an approved “Breeding to Feeding” sire.

“Not just any beef bull will flip a dairy cow,” says Wulf. “The major problem with the straight dairy animal is its lack of muscle and poor carcass confirmation. We’re able to put some product on the carcass to give it some rib eye and a nice size.”

The timeline for Wulf Cattle’s genetics development dates back to 2009 when they began using sexed dairy semen and conventional semen to create replacement animals for their herd. The first “BeefBuilders” — what Wulf calls the beef and dairy hybrids — were developed in 2012. By 2017, Wulf Cattle had developed its “Breeding to Feeding” evaluation to predict the phenotype likelihood of offspring.

Wulf Cattle sells to multiple packers and collects carcass information from them about the beef x dairy cattle after they are harvested. Wulf says it is critical to evaluate carcass information, so they can keep improving the genetics and the process.

“The ability to get cows pregnant is very important to the dairy producer,” says Wulf. “If he’s not going to get cows pregnant, then he loses interest in the program.”

From the perspective of the packing industry, Glen Dolezal says that while there are several pros about these cattle, there is also room for improvement.

Dolezal, assistant vice president of technology development for Cargill Proteins, points out several strengths.

  • More sustainable beef production than with purebred dairy steers
  • High percentage of black hided animals
  • High percentage of prime, premium, and choice cuts
  • Impressive beef tenderness equivalent to native cattle
  • Fewer yield grade 4’s and 5’s on the USDA yield grading scale
  • Improved muscling/rib eye area vs. dairy steers
  • Higher yields than purebred dairy steers
  • More moderate in frame size

In terms of opportunities for improvement, Dolezal notes that beef x dairy cattle tend to have more product lost in slaughter than native beef cattle. Abscessed livers, gut loss, and loss of outside skirts were significantly higher in beef x dairy cattle, resulting in less saleable product.

“One plant had to condemn 76,000 outside skirts, which is typically meat used in fajitas, because an abscessed liver was attached to them. That’s $2 million that the producer and Cargill lost in value,” Dolezal says. “It’s also when general managers started calling and saying, ‘We have an opportunity to fix this.’ ”

A common theme throughout the presentation was that beef x dairy cattle are not making new cattle, but rather replacing and enhancing existing dairy cattle. Kelli Retallick, president of Angus Genetics, says this type of breeding is a way to create a solution for issues that exist in the cattle industry.

She compares it to laying hens. The commercial value of a spent laying hen has long been considered negligible. Hens at the end of their laying life have been considered a by-product of the egg industry, unlike broilers that are raised for meat. Now laying hens are being crossbred to broiler chickens to add more meat to the hen, so it can also be used as a source of meat at the end of its laying years.

Ultimately, the goal of beef x dairy cattle is to add muscle to a dairy calf without adding stress to its life cycle or quality of life. Retallick says that just like beef producers, dairy producers don’t want to pull a calf, so it’s important to make sure this trend does no harm to the dairy female or resulting calf in the way of a hard birthing event.

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