Best of both breeds: UConn researchers study best feeding practices for crossbreed calves

Cattle breeders have historically raised cattle specifically suited for dairy or beef production. But farmers are now looking to get the best of both worlds with crossbreed calves that will produce better beef than purebred dairy calves.

Associate Professor of Animal Sciences at the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, Sarah Reed is investigating appropriate feeding strategies for bovine x dairy crossbred calves, as they are different from those suitable for purebred dairy or beef calves. The team for this project includes Reed’s colleagues at UConn, Steven Zinn, Joe Emenheiser and Kristen Govoni, and Tara Felix from Penn State University.

There is a growing trend to use beef semen in dairy cows to produce crossbred calves. In 2019, Hoard’s Dairyman magazine reported a 59% increase in the use of beef semen by dairy farmers. Seventy-nine percent of respondents to a preliminary survey Reed distributed to farmers in the Northeastern United States use beef semen and 38.5% indicated they might consider it at the to come up.

Dairy cattle are raised to put more energy into eventual lactation, while beef cattle put more energy into muscle growth and fat. This means that dairy calves raised for beef are not genetically well suited to beef production and farmers get less yield from these calves.

Crossbreeding offers an economic advantage to dairy producers as it produces calves better suited to beef. These crossbred calves provide ranchers with better performance while maintaining their dairy herds and milk production levels.

With a wealth of knowledge about dairy cow genetics, breeders can identify cows in their herd that will produce the best offspring for milk production. The rest can be crossed with beef semen to produce calves that will grow more like beef cattle.

In the preliminary survey, requests for information on nutritional counseling were the most frequently requested, underscoring the importance of Reed’s study.

The main reasons why farmers do not use beef semen are lack of financial return and lack of knowledge about crossbreeding. Reed’s project will tackle both of these barriers by developing guidelines that educate farmers on how to make their crossbred calves more profitable.

“Through this project, we will determine best practices for the nutritional management of these calves and, simultaneously, develop cost-benefit analyzes to determine whether the economic return is worth the investment,” Reed said. “Together, this information will be used to educate producers on these best practices and enable them to improve their current programs or initiate new strategies for raising dairy cattle in their herd. “

In his research on feeding strategies, Reed will focus on the critical period in the first eight months of calves’ life. Reed hypothesizes that better postnatal nutrition will produce better quality veal calves which, in turn, will provide farmers with better economic returns. Good nutrition at this early stage in life is likely to promote better growth later in life.

Veal calves traditionally stay with their mother for the first few months of life and suckle from her. However, dairy cow’s milk should be used for dairy products, which means calves should be fed a milk replacer.

Reed and his team will provide calves with one of two commercially available milk substitutes, with varying amounts of fat and protein, for the first 56 days of life. Then the calves will be weaned either with a calf fattener or with a corn-based feed. Once they reach 500 pounds, all calves will switch to a high grain diet.

Using commercially available milk substitutes and other animal feeds, this study will provide farmers with an easily applicable and affordable strategy to produce the best possible stock.

Reed’s team will use body weight and calf measurements along with measurements of muscle and fat content to determine the effect of each experimental treatment. Felix and Emenheiser will develop educational material to disseminate their findings to farmers. These tips can help make crossbred calves more suitable for the beef market by producing better quality calves.

This work has the potential to increase the profitability of dairies in the northeast by diversifying their products. Reed’s approach is suitable for dairy farms of any size or anywhere.

Reed holds a doctorate. in Animal Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Florida. His research interests include how poor maternal nutrition during gestation impairs muscle development in offspring and pre- and postnatal muscle growth and the characterization of muscle satellite cells in horses.

This project is funded by a grant from North East SARE.

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