By Dr. Bob Hough, WLJ correspondent |
Staying profitable year in and year out in the farming and ranching business is not easily achieved. Perhaps there is no bigger case of this than with dairy farmers who have struggled with low fluid milk prices for years.
However, dairy farmers are realizing that their approximately 5 million breeding-age heifers and 9 million cows can generate profit from more than just milk. One of the most underdeveloped potential profit centers is the production of specialized dairy crossed steer calves and excess heifers that can be profitably fed and marketed by feedyards. With that in mind, there has been an exponential increase in the use of beef semen in dairy herds to produce more desirable feeder cattle.
Affordable genomic tests that give commercial dairy producers a look at their heifers’ genetic potential has helped make this happen. Dairy farmers can now determine if a heifer entering the herd has the genetics to produce outstanding replacement dairy females or would be better used to breed beef bulls to produce value-added feeder cattle.
Sexed semen is another piece of the puzzle that allows the top dairy heifers and cows to have only heifer calves, decreasing the number of females needed to supply a dairy operation with replacements. Statistics from the National Association of Animal Breeders (NAAB) show how popular it has become to breed the bottom-end dairy cows to beef bulls, with a 59 percent increase in beef semen last year alone. To be sure, the majority of this increased semen in going into dairy cows and not beef cows.
However, the use of beef semen in dairy cows has often involved little thought in terms of selecting the right bulls, so dairy producers need a better strategy to make this system sustainable.
Until now, the most popular bulls have only had to fit two criteria—black-hided and cheap—which often resulted in sub-par results. For instance, dairy steers receive a significant discount because of their high maintenance costs in the feedlot, and low dressing percentage and poor cutout at the packing plant. Those who market semen are finding that too many dairy producers’ first choice for breeding their low-end cows is cheap Angus semen. While this has helped with the feeding phase, the confirmation of the calves has not been changed enough to avoid the dairy steer discount at the packing plant.