In less than 10 years, a wholescale shift has occurred in the interaction between the dairy and beef sectors in the U.S. fed cattle market. And it’s almost all positive, according to Dale Woerner, Professor and Cargill Endowed Professor at Texas Tech University.
On a recent webinar presented by the Dairy Cattle Reproduction Council, Woerner noted that about 18-20% of the annual U.S. beef supply – around 5 million head – come from dairy origins. Traditionally, those animals were mostly Holstein steers.
Woerner said the fed Holstein market fell out of bed around 2017-18, when the traditional beef supply was high, and marketing opportunities for fed dairy animals dried up, as many major packers simply quit taking them. Those that were sold took a steep discount in those days of up to $40.00/cwt.
At about the same time, U.S. dairies started embracing the concept of breeding the lower end of their herds to beef sires to capture more value from the calves not needed as dairy replacements. That population of offspring has grown steadily since, and now dairyXbeef crossbreds are being finished in feedlots nationwide.
Woerner said the total population of crossbreds is not known, because some of them now so closely resemble conventional beef animals that it is impossible to distinguish between the two.
As more dairy crossbreds make their way into the marketing chain, Woerner and his research team have closely examined the characteristics of those animals and the products they yield, compared to their full-blood dairy and beef cousins. Their findings regarding major performance and carcass data – via retrospective data evaluation, and their own research — include:
- Feedlot growth – Close-out data evaluations show that the average daily gain and feed:gain ratio of crossbreds is significantly better than Holsteins, and similar to conventional beef cattle. Woerner said crossbred finishing times that are about 20% faster than Holsteins promote a positive message about sustainability, because they produce the same amount of beef in a shorter timeframe and on less total feed.
- Quality grade – The Texas Tech researchers found the percentage of crossbreds that grade Choice or higher is roughly equal to, if not better than, conventional beef animals. They appear to inherit the superior marbling capability of their Holstein ancestors, but at a faster finishing pace.
- Carcass yield — Crossbreds have a lower dressing percentage than full-blood beef animals, at least partly because they are leaner and thus have lighter carcasses relative to their live weight. They have, on average, an intermediate fat thickness at the 12th rib between that of full-blood beef and dairy animals. Overall, they have higher red-meat yield than dairy carcasses, and the best crossbreds are comparable to, or even better than, conventional beef cattle.
- Eating quality – A recent study by Woerner’s’ group showed full-blood Holsteins still take first place in terms of tenderness, followed by crossbreds and then conventional beef. Crossbreds led among the three in terms of superior flavor, with the most “fat-like” and “buttery” flavor ratings. Overall, they were scored the second-most desirable in terms of eating quality behind Holsteins.
- Meat color – A major downfall of traditional dairy beef is that it has a darker color, and lacks the “cherry-red” appearance of conventional beef, which consumers prefer. The difference is so distinct that most retailers will not market dairy beef and convention beef in the same meat case. The Texas Tech researchers found that crossbreeding removes the coloring problem, and also results in an additional 12-24 hours of color stability. “This is a huge change in our industry,” stated Woerner. “Rather than segregating Holsteins, we can now sell crossbreds together with conventional cattle.”
- Muscle shape – The smaller, narrower, and more angular shape of finished Holstein loins has long been a drawback for dairy beef. The Texas Tech researchers found that crossbred longissimus (loin) muscles are larger and rounder than Holsteins, and that consumers could not distinguish their shape compared to those from conventional beef cattle.
- Consistency – Dairy animals produce a consistent supply of offspring year-around, which helps improve market stability. Today’s dairy cattle also are highly consistent genetically, creating potential for excellent offspring consistency with correct sire matings.
- Traceablity – “Record-keeping on U.S. dairies is superior to most conventional beef operations,” said Woerner. “That information on birthdate, performance data, and sire identification is highly valuable for branded beef programs and international markets.”
While dairyXbeef crossbreds have erased many of the previous complaints leveled at traditional dairy beef, they remain hamstrung by one pressing issue: liver abscesses.
“They were a problem with fed Holsteins, and I would say they are even a bigger problem with the crossbreds,” stated Woerner. He explained that liver abscesses don’t affect animal performance all that much, but they are a hindrance to the harvest process, because infected livers must be carefully removed and disposed of individually. In some cases, the slow-downs at the packer may be more costly than the products themselves.
They also can affect total carcass yield and total profitability. Woerner explained that when severe liver abscesses invade the surrounding tissue, they may adhere to saleable muscle, making it unfit for human consumption. One major such casualty is the diaphragm muscle, which is sold as skirt steak. If a diaphragm is condemned, the loss is in the neighborhood of $60.00/head.
“We have to find a way to get these liver abscesses under control,” declared Woerner. “I think it is the last major problem to solve in an otherwise overwhelmingly positive shift in our industry.”
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