Impacts of Beef-on-Dairy on herd performance and economics

By Caio Figueiredo, Veterinary Medicine Extension

The use of dairy cattle as a source of beef has served as an alternative for maintaining the beef supply in U.S. markets (Boykin et al., 2017). However, when the number of beef cattle normalize the value of dairy cattle carcasses for beef purposes diminishes. As a consequence of a shift in value, dairy producers are faced with a challenging scenario depicted by an overstock of dairy bull calves and heifers with very little value in the U.S. market. The beef-on-dairy (BoD) strategy was implemented as a means to add value to surplus calves, as an alternative to recover costs (at least partially). As such, the strategy of crossbreeding beef and dairy cattle on dairy operations has continuously grown since 2012 (Basiel and Felix, 2022).  Between 2017 and 2021, beef bull semen sales (mostly to dairy herds) increased by 260%, whereas dairy bull semen sales fell (Figure 1, NAAB, 2021). Considering the popularity of this breeding strategy in dairy herds, the aim of this article is to share data from a few published papers related to the economic analysis, lactational performance, and health of dairy cows that were artificially inseminated to beef bull semen.

Figure 1. Domestic (a) beef and (b) dairy semen sales in the United States over the last decade (Basiel and Felix, 2022)

Graph providing "units sold in millions" from 2009 through 2021. One diagram each for beef and dairy.
Figure 1.

Data from 10 herds that implemented BoD practices were used to evaluate whether inseminating dairy cows to beef semen would be associated with differences in dystocia, stillbirth, gestation length, health, and performance (Basiel et al., 2023). In this study, a greater proportion of calves sired by beef bulls were stillborn compared with calves sired by dairy bulls (5% vs 2%). In addition, gestation length was affected by semen type (specifically breed), as dairy cows inseminated with beef bull semen averaged a longer gestation period compared with those inseminated with dairy bull semen (Figure 2). Overall, health, milk production and components were similar between dairy cows inseminated with dairy and beef bull semen.

Figure 2. Gestation length (days) of dairy cows by sire breed of carried calve. Error bars represent standard error, and bars labeled with different letters are different at P < 0.05 (adapted from Basiel et al., 2023).

Bar graph indicating gestation length in days for multiple calf sire breeds.
Figure 2.

Although no differences in dairy cow health and performance were observed in the previous study, there are still multiple aspects of BoD that modulate profitability on dairy operations. Economic models developed by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison estimated economic outcomes in a herd considering various combinations of breeding strategies using semen from beef bulls and conventional/sexed semen from dairy bulls (Cabrera, 2022). In that study, economic outcomes (Table 1) were simulated considering a 21-d pregnancy rate of approximately 30% (High performance), 20% (Medium performance), and 15% (Low performance).

Ideal situations (bolded in Table 1), represented by maximized ICOSC and replacement balance are influenced by reproductive performance of the herd. For instance, although some scenarios of low reproductive performance yielded positive balances, the replacement balances were negative. Conversely, medium and high reproductive performance yielded positive ICOSC and replacement balance, especially when 100% beef semen is combined with 2C sexed semen, achieving an ICOSC value of $2,001 and 2 extra replacements (medium reproductive performance), and when 100% beef semen is combined with 1H sexed semen, achieving an ICOSC value of $6,215 and 1 extra replacement (high reproductive performance).  Overall, BoD can be a profitable breeding strategy for dairy producers, and it is not associated with differences in health or performance of dairy cows enrolled in the program. Furthermore, BoD could represent an alternative to circumvent upcoming/ongoing challenges in the dairy industry such as overstocking of replacement animals and environmental impacts.

Reproductive performance and beef semen use

Table 1. Income from calves over semen costs (ICOSC, $) and female calf replacement balance (produced minus required replacement calves, numbers in parentheses) for different strategies of beef and sexed semen use under different reproductive performance levels.

Low performance

Left column: Reproductive performance and beef semen use
 Dairy sex-sorted semen use2
0%−3,246 (−4)−4,094 (0)−4,609 (2)−5,936 (5)−5,361 (5)−5,814 (6)
25%−1,008 (−10)−1,856 (−6)−2,372 (−4)−4,146 (0)−3,505 (0)−4,160 (1)
50%1,229 (−16)381.3 (−12)−134 (−10)−2,356 (−5)−1,649 (−5)−2,507 (−3)
75%3,467 (−22)2,619 (−18)2,103 (−16)−565.9 (−10)207 (−10)−853 (−8)
100%5,704 (−28)4,856 (−24)4,341 (−22)1,224 (−14)2,062 (−16)801 (−12)

Medium performance

Left column: Reproductive performance and beef semen use
 Dairy sex-sorted semen use2
0%−1,790 (9)−2,816 (14)−3,403 (16)−4,548 (19)−4,068 (19)−4,519 (20)
25%445(3)−581 (8)−1,168 (10)−2,760 (14)−2,209 (13)−2,889 (15)
50%2,680 (−4)1,654(2)1,067(4)−972 (9)−350 (8)−1,259 (11)
75%4,915 (−10)3,889 (−5)3,302 (−2)816(4)1,509(3)371(7)
100%7,150 (−16)6,124 (−11)5,537 (−8)2,605 (−1)3,368 (−2)2,001(2)

High performance

Left column: Reproductive performance and beef semen use
 Dairy sex-sorted semen use2
0%−503 (16)−1,738 (23)−2,400 (26)−3,266 (28)−2,952 (28)−3,377 (29)
25%1,486(11)250(17)−411 (20)−1,676 (24)−1,308 (23)−1,973 (25)
50%3,474(5)2,239(12)1,577(15)−85 (20)336(19)−569 (22)
100%7,450 (−5)6,215(1)5,553(4)3,096(11)3,624(10)2,239(14)

1. Bolded pairs of numbers indicate a combination in which both the ICOSC and the replacement balance (in parentheses) are positive. 2. Dairy sexed semen use: NS = no use; 1H = first service in heifers; 2H = first and second services in heifers; TOP = first and second services in heifers and 20% cows with top genetics; 1C = first and second services in heifers and first service in primiparous cows; and 2C = first and second services in heifers and first service in primiparous and second-parity cows. Beef semen use only on adult cows and after sexed semen use. All remaining services to eligible animals that were not bred to beef or sexed semen were bred with conventional semen (Cabrera, 2022).