WITH beef in short supply and prices rising drastically, the beef industry is starting to get a little help from the dairy industry, according to ABS Global general manager for North America Richard Williams.
"Quality beef crossbreds from dairy cows offer benefits throughout the supply chain, from dairy farmers to beef cattle feeders, meat processors, retailers and consumers," Williams told an audience at the 67th Reciprocal Meat Conference.
Organized by the American Meat Science Assn., the conference brings together the commercial, academic and government segments of the meat industry. This year's event celebrated the 50th anniversary of the formal incorporation of the organization, which was founded at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"Demand for beef is outpacing supply, and all indications point to beef prices remaining high," Williams said.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. beef calf crop has declined in 14 of the last 16 years, from a high of more than 35 million head in 1996 to less than 30 million in 2012, he said.
"Because of drastic reductions in the beef cow herd, dairy cattle bred to beef bulls may help offset shortages in the beef supply chain. Dairy cull cows and bull calves have long found their way into the beef supply chain. Now, quality beef crosses from dairy cows are hitting the market and proving they can compete for growth, efficiency and quality with conventional beef product," he added.
"Dairy industry changes, economics and advanced artificial insemination technologies — such as sorted semen — are increasing interest in crossbreeding high-quality beef bulls with dairy cows," Williams said. "The dairy industry is waking up to the opportunity."
Since 2002, the number of dairy herds has fallen by 27%, to 47,000, but milk production per cow has increased by 17%, to 21,822 lb. per year. The increases can be attributed to several factors, including genetic improvement, animal health practices and better feeding.
However, volatility in the marketplace has focused more dairy farmers on profitability than ever before. Cash flow and working capital have become more important metrics following an extreme industry downturn in 2008-09 and again in 2012, when a nationwide drought pushed feed prices to levels that drove many dairies out of business.
In the U.S., more than 70% of dairy cattle are bred through artificial insemination, mostly with genetics from within dairy breeds, Williams said. Typically, they produce a 50/50 mix of male and female offspring. Only a small proportion of female offspring are needed as replacements for aging milk cows, with the remainder raised for beef.
However, dairy breeds typically lack many of the physical qualities desirable in beef animals, Williams suggested. Dairy-breed calves that were channeled into the beef supply chain were often sold at low prices, sometimes even at a financial loss.
Technologies such as sorted semen, which results in about 90% female offspring, now are being used to breed the best dairy cows to provide replacements, Williams said.
"Breeding the remaining animals with beef bulls results in offspring with better beef characteristics. There is a significant incremental value opportunity by crossbreeding dairy cows with elite beef genetics," Williams added.
For dairy operations, this management practice brings both animal welfare and economic benefits, he suggested, noting that calving is easier; calves are healthier, and the resulting offspring from crossbreeding bring higher value in the marketplace. Also, breeding the very best cows using sorted semen can create more rapid genetic improvement within dairy herds.
Beef cattle feeders benefit by having faster-growing cattle and a more desirable consumer product. They also have a more consistent, year-round supply of animals and improved supply chain traceability.
Cow maternity pens
Researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark, in collaboration with the company Jyden Bur, will develop a self-operated maternity pen for dairy cows.
The idea is to take advantage of the cow's natural tendency to seek isolation from the herd before calving, which has the potential to improve animal welfare, because the cow can calve undisturbed while the risk of calving difficulties and complications is reduced, the university said. This may also reduce labor and costs for the farmer.
Aarhus said some of the expeceted benefits of the project are fewer cows suffering from production diseases and lower veterinary costs.
The project will be launched at the Aarhus department of animal science this fall.
"The idea is to develop a housing design where the cow is able to withdraw from the herd during the early stage of calving in order to calve alone in an undisturbed and clean maternity pen, where she can stay with her newborn during the first hours after calving," explained project leader Margit Bak Jensen with the animal science department. "The project investigates what a cow perceives as an optimal calving site with a sufficient level of isolation. Further, the project investigates the prerequisites for the cow to be able to operate the maternity pen's gate, which ensures that she remains alone within the pen. The concept will be developed based on this knowledge."
In order to ensure undisturbed calving and to prevent infections, a new law in Denmark states that calving must take place in an individual maternity pen and that the cow and calf must spend the first hours after calving together.
It is, however, difficult to predict the time of calving, and many cows are either moved too late or calve in the group pen with other cows, the announcement explained. This may result in poor animal welfare due to prolonged calving and increased risk of dystocia, metritis and calf mortality.
Considering this, Jensen said she foresees positive effects of implementing the project's concept.
"The concept has the potential to improve animal welfare and health and to reduce expenses due to reduced milk production and veterinary treatment. Fewer cows with production diseases will also result in a lower environmental impact per unit of milk produced. On top of that, labor may be reduced by implementing our concept," she said.
The project will identify which features of a sheltered area stimulate isolation-seeking behavior prior to calving. This will be investigated by housing pregnant close-up cows in experimental pens, where they can choose between various calving areas. Differently shaped pen walls enclose the different calving areas in order to determine which enclosure is the most attractive, Jensen explained.
Subsequently, a self-shutting gate will be developed and tested. A prerequisite of the concept is that only one cow at a time may access the self-operated maternity pen and that the cow and the calf can remain alone and undisturbed within it during the hours after calving.
Once the calving pen and gate have been designed and developed, the aim is to investigate how much experience cows need with these individual maternity pens and their self-operated gate prior to calving. Furthermore, the researchers will examine at which stage the cow seeks isolation in relation to the time of calving and whether all cows calve in the individual maternity pens, the announcement said.
Finally, the project's partners will test the concept in a dairy herd. This test involves one group of cows calving in the new housing concept and a control group calving in traditional calving pens, and at least 75 cows will be included in each of the two systems. The effect on the incidences of calving difficulties, production diseases, calf mortality and health as well as milk yield will be investigated, Jensen said. Furthermore, the level of labor required in each of the two systems will be compared.
The project is expected to last until 2017.
Veterinarians at Iowa State University are monitoring drug residues in milk and meat using advanced forensic techniques and the same technology crime scene investigators use.
"It's the same instrumentation used for forensics testing in humans, but we use it to test for drugs in animals," said Hans Coetzee, a professor of veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine at Iowa State.
Coetzee leads the Pharmacology Analytical Support Team (PhAST) in the university's Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. He and his team employ liquid chromatography mass spectrometry, an analytical chemistry technique commonly used in human pharmacology, to test dozens of milk and animal feed samples every month.
The team's mission is to help local veterinarians and farmers make sure the meat and milk they produce satisfy Food & Drug Administration regulations governing the use of antibiotics and are safe for human consumption.
Growing awareness. Patrick Gorden, a senior clinician in veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine, said the use of antibiotics in production animals has taken on greater importance as consumer awareness of food safety has grown in recent years.
Gorden said the use of antibiotics and other medications in production animals may lead to the possibility of violative levels of the medications being present when the milk and meat are offered for sale. In most cases, that happens because of mistakes in recordkeeping or animal handling, he said.
"It's important to realize that mistakes can happen and that safeguards are in place to prevent those contaminated products from reaching the consumer," Gorden said.
Gorden works with veterinarians, producers and inspectors to keep everyone up to date on the latest regulations and federal programs, developing educational materials and holding meetings across the state.
Every load of milk is tested for the presence of medicines at or above FDA limits before it's unloaded and processed. Of all milk tankers tested nationwide between October 2012 and September 2013, only 0.014% showed antibiotic levels above FDA limits.
Any milk found to contain levels of medicine above FDA limits is removed from the supply and destroyed, Gorden said.
From racehorses to milk samples. The PhAST laboratory started out in the 1980s testing racehorses for illegal substances. The lab still does testing for horse and dog racing, but its mission has shifted in the last few years toward testing milk and feed samples for drug residues, which requires the same sort of equipment and expertise as the testing conducted for racetracks, Coetzee said.
The team tests around 50 milk samples and 100 feed samples in an average month, he said.
Local veterinarians send samples to the lab for several reasons, Coetzee said. For instance, a veterinarian may suspect that a dairy cow was mistakenly given an incorrect medication. Milk samples from the cow would be frozen and sent overnight to the lab, where PhAST personnel use chemical extraction techniques to strip away the fats and proteins from the milk, leaving only the drug signature.
It's the only veterinary diagnostic lab in the U.S. that offers such clinical pharmacology services, so the lab has attracted clients from across the country. Also, PhAST is expanding its services to include testing for oral fluids from pigs — a move supported by a grant from the National Pork Board.
Coetzee said PhAST is "unique in terms of the services commonly offered by veterinary diagnostic labs."