Raising Holstein and Crossbred Steers

Amy Barkley, Livestock Specialist
Southwest New York Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops Program

June 3, 2021
Raising Holstein and Crossbred Steers

Information in this article was originally shared by Dr. Dan Schaefer from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in his presentation, "Capturing Full Value for Holstein and Crossbred Steers". This presentation was given on May 10th, 2021, through Hoard's Dairyman. The full webinar can be viewed here: https://hoards.com/article-30174-capturing-full-value-for-holstein-and-crossbred-steers.html


Beef steers are a co-product of milk production. While purebred Holstein steers have been raised for meat for some time, there has been a relatively recent increase in the production of beef on dairy crosses (dairyxbeef). Although both raised for beef, these animals grow differently and finish differently than pure beef breed steers. Because of this, it's important to understand how these animals grow and how genetics impact their final carcass yield and quality.

Beef production begins at a day of age, where bull calves should be fed colostrum, following the same program as that of replacement heifers. If calves are bought in, it is good practice to confirm that a sound colostrum management program was followed. Although there is no research indicating the effects of feeding colostrum on the health and growth potential of bull calves, research does indicate that improper feeding of colostrum in replacement heifer calves has severe implications on their development. Furthermore, calves that are destined for beef should be dehorned and properly castrated to help prevent discounts when those animals mature.

As these calves begin their lives, a farm should focus on respiratory health, which is impacted by a calf's receipt of colostrum (timing, quality, and quantity), being given a proper milk replacer, and having clean, dry housing. If being sold as feeders, these animals should receive a vaccination series consistent with the expectations of buyers.

Holsteins have a relatively high amount of natural inbreeding, which results in genetics that act similarly, even across individuals. This makes production predictable in regard to growth rates, feed intake, and feed conversion, but also mortalities and culls. Therefore, these purebred animals need more TLC than their beef counterparts. Their thin hide makes them more susceptible to production losses because of cold weather. Dry bedding is important to maintaining health throughout their grow-out. A floor surface that allows for good footing will help decrease the chances of slipping and joint swelling.

The ideal market weight of Holstein steers is between 1,400 and 1,550 pounds, resulting in a yield of 58.6 - 61.5%. This is lower than for beef breeds, which yield closer to 63%, because their characteristics have not been optimized for beef production.

Holsteins have a lower dressing percentage than beef-type steers due to heavier bone structure, lighter muscling, less subcutaneous fat, a larger proportion of gut, more abdominal fat, and larger livers. That said, they have higher marbling scores due to their genetic a propensity to store intramuscular fat. However, this doesn't translate to a difference in tenderness and taste, since the difference in taste and texture come from absence vs presence of marbling, rather than degree of marbling.

Now that we've introduced Holstein steers, let's talk a little bit about beef on dairy animals.


Sexed semen in the dairy industry has resulted in surplus dairy heifers over the years. There are therefore surplus matings available to producers who keep these heifers. While there is little money to be made from Holstein calves, a crossed animal (beef crossed with Holstein) could result in the receipt of a price premium for Certified Angus Beef, should that calf meet the phenotypical standards for such. These standards include:

  1. A predominantly solid black hair coat (>50%)
  2. The potential for modest or higher marbling at maturity (average and high Choice, Prime)
  3. Superior muscling, which overrules dairy cow influence of leaner muscling

While animals with these phenotypes can be attained by breeding Holsteins to beef sires, there are some challenges. The first is that sexed semen doesn't yet exist in the beef industry. Therefore, it's expected that 50% of all offspring are going to be heifers, and it has not yet been established if these animals consistently bring a price premium over pure Holstein heifers. Second, to overcome the relatively large frame and weak muscling of the dairy dam, choosing a bull with characteristics that will compliment those of the cow will help develop the proper muscling and frame for the crossbred offspring. While the physical variance in Holsteins is small, the variance of crosses can be large, depending on which bulls are used on which cows. This is especially true when considering characteristics between breeds (think Holstein vs a Jersey).

Another challenge lies in that dairies typically breed year-round, rather than seasonally like beef operations, making it more challenging to obtain and grow large sets of uniform calves, especially if farmers are selling to feedlots or large loads of fed cattle to processors. That said, if these animals are being sold into the freezer trade, this challenge may be a benefit to some producers who don't mind feeding smaller animal groups and are looking to have availability year-round.

Where genetics are concerned, there are traits to consider when breeding beef to dairy. Marbling is highly heritable and is only slightly more heritable than muscling. These traits are not a result of hybrid vigor, but instead of genetic selection. Respiratory health is important for fast-growing quality calves, and this is an inherent benefit of crossbreeding.

 Dr. Dan Schaefer created a list of his preferred genetic selection criteria for Holstein matings. These are:

  1. Black coat (homozygous)
  2. Polled (homozygous)
  3. Frame size of 5 - 5.5 (on a 1-9 scale)
  4. Muscling where the ribeye area (REA) is in the top 20% of the breed
  5. Marbling which is in the top 20% of the breed
  6. Calving ease in the to 50% of the breed

Dr. Schaefer mentions that these genetics compliment those of Holsteins. If breeding Jerseys, the difference in the recommendations is to select a sire with a frame size of 6-6.5 instead of 5-5.5 and an emphasis on muscle to bone ratio when selecting in that top 20% for ribeye area.

The bottom line is that breeding for a black crossed calf isn't enough: that calf needs to meet the physical characteristics to grow and yield like a proper meat animal. The reasoning behind all of this selection is to create offspring with better feed conversions, gains, and cut-out potentials.

Publicly available reports for feedlot performance indicate that until the first 400 pounds, Holstein and diaryxbeef animals perform similarly. From 400 pounds on, they are different. Holsteins take an extra 50 average days on feed to achieve a similar, but lower daily gain and higher feed conversion when compared to dairyxbeef animals. Holsteins should be put on their finishing diet at 750 pounds. Dairyxbeef animals can be finished starting at 850 pounds. Beef type animals should be put on a finishing diet around 950 pounds. The finishing weights for these animals are 1,450lbs, 1,375lbs, and 1,300lbs, respectively.

In summary, regardless of whether growing Holsteins or dairyxbeef, there are differences in rearing, management, quality, and yields as compared with pure beef animals. However, when approached from a perspective which idealizes genetics and grow-out needs, a higher percentage of quality beef animals can result.

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