Dairy producers find new value streams for calf crops

Advancements in genomics are opening new avenues for dairy profit.

Jennifer M. Latzke, Editor

June 18, 2021

6 Min Read
EMBRYO TRANSFER CATTLE: The Simplot and Select Sires SimVitro HerdFlex embryo transplant cattle in this pen are nearing the end of their feeding trial at Triangle H Feedyard, Garden City, Kan. By implanting HerdFlex beef embryos in their young dairy heifers, dairy producers can find added value in the resulting beef cattle in the feedyard. Photos by Jennifer M. Latzke

Dairies need pregnant cows to keep their parlors filled and the milk trucks rolling. Beef feedlots need reliable year-round sources of feeder cattle to keep processing plants humming along. Today, with advancements in genomics and animal science, both needs can be met in different ways.

The first ever Beef on Dairy Symposium, a daylong event held in conjunction with the 2021 Beef Empire Days in Garden City, Kan., brings dairy farmers and cattle producers together to learn about new ways to add value to dairy cow pregnancies.

Composite cattle

The use of terminal cross breeding is not new, explains Justin Waggoner, Kansas State University beef specialist. The use of sexed beef semen on dairy cows has been in practice for many years, but with more genomic information available to dairy producers, the matings of beef bulls to dairy cows doubled from 2015 to 2019, he says.

CATTLEMAN TO CATTLEMAN: Dairy farmer Gary de Graaf, owner of Jer-Z-Boyz Ranch, Pixley, Calif., talks with Sam Hands, owner of Triangle H Feedyard, Garden City, Kan., about pens of HerdFlex cattle finishing on feed. Dairy producers and cattle feeders are working together to bring more value to calves from dairies in the beef market.

The National Association of Animal Breeders says there are potentially 1.6 million to 2 million beef-dairy crossbred calves that will be born in 2021 — that’s just 2% of the entire calf crop of the U.S., Waggoner says. And it’s important to note that these calves aren’t displacing any beef cattle; rather, they’re displacing the dairy calves that would have already been entering the beef production stream.

“The concept of terminal crossbreeding is not new, but what has changed, I think, is the focus within the dairy industry on really improving the quality of those crossbred animals,” he says. “Both from a carcass standpoint, and from a growth and genetics standpoint.” Beef-dairy crossbred calves can bring $50 to $175 per head more than purebred dairy calves.

Waggoner calls these calves the “2.0 version” of the beef-on-dairy cross. As the practice becomes more widely accepted, it’s going to rely on data-sharing from feedyards back to the dairies where these cattle originate.

The next step

Crossbred beef-dairy calves are one thing, but what if dairy producers started transplanting beef cattle embryos in their dairy cows to result in a purebred beef calf to market? That’s the question that Chris Sigurdson, general manager of the Minnesota Select Sires Cooperative Inc., and others at Select Sires started asking themselves a few years back.

COMPOSITE CATTLE: In the feeding trial at Triangle H Feedyard, Garden City, there is a pen of beef-dairy crossbred cattle on feed alongside two pens of HerdFlex beef embryo transplant cattle. The composites had an average daily gain of 3.63 pounds, while the HerdFlex pens had average daily gains of 4.09 and 3.13 pounds.

“We started to explore what might be the next opportunity for them because of their successes as dairymen and their ability to have extra pregnancies. What else could we do with those pregnancies? And that’s where the idea for HerdFlex was really founded to use embryo transfer [ET],” Sigurdson says.

Select Sires has been the exclusive provider of beef embryos produced by SimVitro, a Simplot company for many years. In March 2020, Select Sires launched the brand name of HerdFlex beef embryos with SimVitro. The company started with a commercial trial on five Minnesota dairies, with calves finishing at Triangle H Feedyard, Garden City, Kan.

“We’re using modern embryo technology and dairy production systems’ existing assets,” Sigurdson says. “This is a beef production strategy designed to maximize calf value. Dairies contribute their extra pregnancies, calf-raising expertise and year-round production system.”

Sigurdson says the HerdFlex beef embryos are created using Simplot genetic recovery oocytes harvested from commercial black Angus-based dams, which are then matched with Select Sires Elite Proven Sires. The goal is a viable embryo that can be implanted in a dairy cow with dominant traits from the elite sires for calving ease, growth, dry-matter intake and more.

Initial results

Of course, the entire supply chain needed to find value in these animals to compensate the dairies for their investment in making these calves, Sigurdson says.

“Dairies don’t work unless cows get pregnant when they need to, and we can’t disrupt that,” he says.

Gary de Graaf, of Jer-Z-Boyz Ranch, Pixley, Calif., is one of the early adopters of the HerdFlex system. This family dairy has a herd of 5,000 Jersey cows, and it’s been using gender-selected beef semen on its cows for several years with great results, he says. The fertility exceeded expectations, and it allowed the ranch to find value in pregnancies of their lower-end cows, while ensuring replacements from the top end of its herd genetics.

“Now, we have an Angus embryo that is going into our mature Jersey females,” de Graaf says. “I told my two sons at that point we’re not just milking cows anymore. We’re managing healthy uteruses.”

He says the ranch saw pregnancy rates of ET cows at 39% in the hot months in the San Joaquin Valley, when normal conception rates from AI would be around 26%. And, the ranch can get more value out of the lower end of herd genomics with every live calf.

Preliminary harvest data from Select Sires are that HerdFlex beef embryo calves can earn up to 30 times more than a day-old Jersey, and six times more than a day-old Holstein calf; that increases if the dairies opt to retain ownership.

As for the feeders and packers, harvest information from the initial group of HerdFlex animals has them grading 22% Prime and 77% Choice, with an average daily gain of just over 4 pounds per day.

There is a cost to produce that HerdFlex calf to the dairy compared to a beef crossbred: an added $125 to $140. However, according to Select Sires, these HerdFlex embryo calves return about $230 per calf of added value over their beef-dairy crossbred counterparts.

Sigurdson says the HerdFlex system is scalable, and it can be used in conjunction with a beef-dairy crossbreeding program as well.

“A 3,500-cow dairy can produce about 1,300 or more embryo calves per year,” Sigurdson says. “It’s not a replacement for using beef semen in dairies, Rather, it’s a mix of risk levels.”

Whether using beef semen or implanting beef embryos, dairy producers now have more options open to them to create added value from every pregnancy. And feeders have a steady supply of cattle with traceability and proven genetics that will perform on the rail.

Select Sires contributed to this article.


About the Author(s)

Jennifer M. Latzke

Editor, Kansas Farmer

Through all her travels, Jennifer M. Latzke knows that there is no place like Kansas.

Jennifer grew up on her family’s multigenerational registered Angus seedstock ranch and diversified farm just north of Woodbine, Kan., about 30 minutes south of Junction City on the edge of the Kansas Flint Hills. Rock Springs Ranch State 4-H Center was in her family’s backyard.

While at Kansas State University, Jennifer was a member of the Sigma Kappa Sorority and a national officer for the Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow. She graduated in May 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural communications and a minor in animal science. In August 2000 Jennifer started her 20-year agricultural writing career in Dodge City, Kan., on the far southwest corner of the state.

She’s traveled across the U.S. writing on wheat, sorghum, corn, cotton, dairy and beef stories as well as breaking news and policy at the local, state and national levels. Latzke has traveled across Mexico and South America with the U.S. Wheat Associates and toured Vietnam as a member of KARL Class X. She’s traveled to Argentina as one of 10 IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Agricultural Journalism. And she was part of a delegation of AAEA: The Ag Communicators Network members invited to Cuba.

Jennifer’s an award-winning writer, columnist, and podcaster, recognized by the Kansas Professional Communicators, Kansas Press Association, the National Federation of Presswomen, Livestock Publications Council, and AAEA. In 2019, Jennifer reached the pinnacle of achievements, earning the title of “Writer of Merit” from AAEA.

Trips and accolades are lovely, but Jennifer says she is happiest on the road talking to farmers and ranchers and gathering stories and photos to share with readers.

“It’s an honor and a great responsibility to be able to tell someone’s story and bring them recognition for their work on the land,” Jennifer says. “But my role is also evolving to help our more urban neighbors understand the issues our Kansas farmers face in bringing the food and fiber to their store shelves.”

She spends her time gardening, crafting, watching K-State football, and cheering on her nephews and niece in their 4-H projects. She can be found on Twitter at @Latzke.

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