Myth busting: Feeding dairy-beef crossbred calves

Animal : Calf

Olivia Schroeder, Ph.D.

Director of Dairy Research

Over the last few years, producing dairy-beef crossbred calves has not only been talked about more, but it has also become a common production practice for dairy producers across the country. Breeding dairy cows to beef sires has allowed producers to diversify their revenue streams by taking advantage of the strong beef market during volatile dairy markets.
Raising dairy-beef crossbred calves will no longer be a trend. It will be a staple production strategy used by dairy producers for the foreseeable future. Supporting your crossbred calves with proper nutrition will be an important step toward a successful crossbred program.  
Until recently, there has been very little research focused on nutrition for crossbred calves. Researchers at the Purina Animal Nutrition Center have diligently worked to better understand the specific nutritional needs of crossbred calves by conducting multiple research trials. The trials focused on preweaning nutritional needs, but the findings have shown early life nutrition has a significant impact on growth and performance for these calves post-weaning as well.
After three years of intensive research, we can confidently bust four common myths with proven research when it comes to feeding crossbred calves successfully. 

Myth #1: You can feed dairy-beef crossbred calves less total milk replacer. 

When compared to Holstein calves, crossbred calves are much more efficient. Because of this, many believe they can be fed less milk replacer and still see similar growth and performance as you would see in a Holstein that is fed more. While it is true they have better relative feed efficiency, following this train of thought will leave added potential on the table.
Crossbred calves fed a higher plane of nutrition, meaning 1.5-1.8 lbs. of milk replacer per day, will perform much better and producers will see the cost per pound of gain decrease when fed more pounds per day than when fed a lower plane of nutrition i.e., 1-1.2 lbs. of milk replacer per day. Figure 1 demonstrates the preweaning performance of dairy-beef crossbred calves across different nutritional programs.

Myth #2: Dairy-beef crossbred calves can be weaned earlier. 

Holstein calves are commonly weaned at 9 weeks of age. Our research recommends a similar age for dairy-beef crossbred calves. Weaning calves early reduces their feed efficiency while increasing the cost per pound of gain. Weaning calves later is more beneficial to both the calf and the producer in both the short and long run.
Just like dairy calves, crossbred calves are most efficient on milk replacer, versus dry feed, in the early pre-ruminant stage. Likewise, they need to be given sufficient time to develop a rumen ready for dry feed. They also need time to develop the body capacity to handle a large rumen. When calves are weaned at 8 weeks, rather than 6 or 7, their overall preweaning efficiency will improve while they continue to increase starter intake, which will help prevent a post-weaning lag. Crossbred calves tend to become more aggressive eaters as they grow, so offering both milk replacer and starter feed in tandem for longer sets them up for increased performance and efficiency post-weaning.

Myth #3 Feeding dairy-beef crossbred calves more will only equate to more hip height.

 Regardless if you are raising a Holstein dairy calf or a dairy-beef crossbred calf, frame size and hip height will increase as the animal grows. However, the body composition of a crossbred calf is very different from a Holstein calf. When fed the same high plane of nutrition, there is greater bodyweight gain and less hip height gain in crossbred calves than in Holstein calves. Crossbred calves benefit from a higher plane of nutrition by prioritizing muscle gain with moderate frame growth that is proportionate to the rest of the body. Our research shows that when incrementally higher planes of milk replacer nutrition are fed, there is less frame growth relative to body weight gain as long as enough protein is provided. The protein level should be increased as feed rate increases so that allowable gain from protein and energy are equal.

Myth #4 Dairy-beef crossbred calves can be fed a lower percentage of protein.

The end goal of raising dairy-beef crossbreds is to produce a consistent, heavily muscled calf that will contribute high-quality protein to the food supply chain. Knowing this, producers must focus on a nutrition program that supports efficient weight gain and muscle growth.
Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids, which are essential components for the growth and development of muscle and tissue. Thus, a high-protein milk replacer and a starter feed composed of at least 20% protein is crucial for adequate muscle growth in the preweaning phase. Feeding this same starter feed until about 12 weeks of age will lead to continued efficiency, muscle growth and performance in the post-weaning phase and ultimately to a lower cost per pound of gain.
Raising dairy-beef crossbred calves is a value-added production strategy that is here to stay, and dairy producers have a tremendous opportunity to influence the success of this strategy through early life nutrition. Feeding these calves a high plane of nutrition, rich in protein and energy, for an ample pre-weaning phase that allows for sufficient body capacity and rumen development will certainly pay off in the post-weaning phase and beyond.  
Ready to take your dairy-beef crossbred nutrition program to the next level? Talk with your LAND O LAKES representative or visit today.
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