How the Canadian dairy industry can become a sustainable source of beef

In order for dairy farms to produce milk, the cows first have to produce calves, many of which are classified as surplus calves that are destined for the beef industry or veal operations, rather than being raised as dairy cow replacements.

Across North America more than five million surplus dairy calves are produced each year. Historically, most of these calves have been Holstein, but with dairy farmers’ increasing use of beef sires, a growing percentage of these calves are now dairy-beef crossbreds.

It’s a development that University of Guelph animal biosciences professor Dr. Mike Steele feels creates opportunity for dairy farmers. He believes all those crossbred calves could make the Canadian dairy industry a sustainable source of beef.

Speaking at the recent South Western Ontario Dairy Symposium at Woodstock, Ont., Steele told dairy producers that crossbreds could prove to be valuable in the supermarket meat case, while also contributing to methane emission reduction.

“It’s fascinating because if you look at the methane emissions from the beef industry, a lot of it’s coming from the cow-calf herd,” says Steele. “Of course, the feedlot is also a source of methane, but the majority of it’s coming from the cow-calf herd.” He feels that crossing Holstein and Angus could produce a source of good quality beef from the dairy farm and reduce the amount of methane being created to produce a beef animal.

For beef on dairy to succeed, one of the big questions that needs to be addressed is how these animals fit into the beef production system — how do they move from the dairy all the way to the feedlot and the abattoir?

Steele says traditionally these calves are born on the dairy farm, and then they’re transported to a veal operations. “But now with the dairy-beef market opening up, this is changing. We’re seeing all kinds of variations of this. Typically, this dairy-beef animal is born, goes to a nursery farm and potentially a grower, then a backgrounder — sometimes these are different farms — then eventually a feedlot.” (Story  continues after the interview.)

Steele notes that can mean a lot of transportation for young dairy calves. “However, what we’re noticing with some of the larger operations is that they’re taking in calves very young and raising them all the way to the end.”  This minimizes stress, improves growth rates, and reduces reliance on anti-microbials to manage sickness.

There’s also questions regarding Holstein carcass characteristics — variation in size and cuts can potentially pose challenges at packing plant.

“The biggest difference if you look at purebred dairy versus purebred beef is the ribeye areas — it’s not as big and they have smaller ribeye steaks.” But with crossbreeding, there’s lots of opportunity to increase that [ribeye] with a greater understanding of genetics, notes Steele. “I think that we could improve that really quickly because we know that some of the crosses have similar ribeye steak shapes and sizes.”

Steele also points out that dairy has its advantages: “It’s more tender, and there’s very little differences in taste when you compare a Holstein and an Angus, so I think it has a lot going for it. I think with some refinements, we can actually produce high-quality steak from these crossbreds.”

In the interview, Steele discusses the concept of ‘developmental plasticity’ and why it’s important to know how to manage crossbreds to mould or shape the meat characteristics of the animal. “We can’t change its genotype at all, we can’t change the genes at all, but we can change what genes are being expressed based on how we feed and manage that animal.”

Steele also discussed how the University of Guelph, and its expanding research facilitates, can play a key role in helping dairy crossbreds reach their beef market potential.

“We’re really excited here at the University of Guelph, to not just have a new dairy farm, but also another cow-calf farm. And last year, there was a feedlot built, which has incredible research capacity,” says Steele. “Our overall research objectives are to understand the genetics of these animals… What we want to do is create better biomarkers so that we can understand what these genetics can actually lead to in the future. But also a huge part of this program is to understand how early life nutritional interventions can impact growth, efficiency, health and also the end product of the dairy-beef or the crossbred animals.”

Wake up with RealAgriculture

Subscribe to our daily newsletters to keep you up-to-date with our latest coverage every morning.

Wake up with RealAgriculture