Beefing-up US dairy

By Dairy News

It’s hot and dusty and there are pens of cattle lined-up alongside each other into the distance.

A tractor is moving manure, another is dispensing feed into the long troughs.

The animals stick their heads in and munch, it’s like they don’t even come-up for air. The ration is that tasty.

Others mull around the water troughs, in the middle of the yard.

The black animals have strong muscle definition and an even fat covering − a chunkiness that you would see in steers or heifers at prime markets throughout Australia.

There was no doubt about it, it was a beef feedlot.

So, when the guide, Natasha Mortenson pointed out into the brown dust and told the crowd “these are from our dairy” puzzled expressions stared back at her.

“These are from your Jersey-cross herd?” one person asked. Others shook their head with scepticism.

The Riverview Dairy operation includes 95 000 milking cows across 14 farms. This farm at Morris in Minnesota was the first to convert from a family owned cropping and beef operation to a dairy farm. Up to 6000 cows are now milked on this site with a feedlot nearby for the dairy-beef cross animals.

Natasha explained they were in fact from Riverview Dairy and its closest 6000-head operation as well as other “ranchers” from across the United States.

She said they were known as BeefBuilders − a trademark of the Wulf Cattle Company − registered as the name of dairy-beef cross offspring produced by dairy cows and sired by specially selected bulls.

These sires started with a base of Wulf Limousin genetics. Sires selected to mate with the females are homozygous, black and polled. From there, the sires selected to produce BeefBuilder calves are those whose offspring performs the best in the feedlots and then “on the rail” at the meat processor. These calculations are based on carcass data supplied by meat processors.

Fertility testing is completed every 30 days and assuming a sire has passed all these check-points, he is used via artificial insemination in the Riverview Dairy herd. This semen is used strategically to join cows that are not required to supply dairy replacement heifers.

Creating a valuable, terminal cross-bred animal from dairy cows without the carcass penalties that would otherwise be associated with the eating quality and yield of a dairy animal, is the end result.

The dairy-beef strategy is also about adding value to excess dairy calves, making the most of year-round supply from dairy farms to generate revenue in the beef market.

“The success of the BeefBuilders have changed everything,” Natasha said.

“It has allowed the business to grow. We get our own dairy heifers through sexed semen, but the bull calves, especially those with Jersey in them, they had absolutely no value.”

The dairy-beef cross animals − known as BeefBuilders are reared in feedlots as part of the Wulf Cattle operation.

Riverview is a diversified agribusiness which includes 14 dairy farms, five beef operations and cropping land. The latter supplies feed to the dairy and beef operations. It employs about 1200 full-time staff and the company is now majority employee owned. The operation includes about 95 000 dairy cows and turns-off about 60 000 BeefBuilders a year.

The Riverview headquarters is at Morris in western Minnesota, in the mid-west corn belt, where the original family crop and beef farm became an 800-cow dairy operation in 1995. It was then, more than two decades ago, it opened its doors to local community investment.

Wulf Cattle began more than 50 years ago selling Limousin and LimFlex (Angus-hybrid) seedstock. The operation ranks in the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Top 25 Seedstock Producers. Nine years ago, it partnered with Riverview to investigate the potential of BeefBuilder calves after trialling different beef breeds across their cross-bred, Jersey and Holstein herd.

Now, the Riverview dairy at Morris joins about 55 per cent of its herd to sexed semen for dairy replacements and the rest to BeefBuilder semen.

At Louriston Dairy − another Riverview operation at Murdock in Minnesota milking 9500 cows − the younger herd is joined to dairy semen and the older cows receive beef semen for BeefBuilders. Those joined to dairy get three services from dairy semen and if they return on-heat they get two-to-three chances with beef across five-to-six months.

All calves from the Riverview dairies get marked with different colour tags to identify their future. All calves are moved to “warmer” states − those further south − at three to seven days and only return to the farms either on the point-of-calving or once they’ve calved.

Those bred to be BeefBuilders get pink tags and are kept together in group housing. When they reach 600 to 700 pounds they are moved into the feedlot at Morris.

BeefBuilder steers are finished at 1400 to 1500 pounds (635 to 680 kg) with heifers 1300 to 1400 pounds (590 to 635 kg). Natasha said the animals in the feedlot had an average weight gain of 3 pounds (1.3kg) a day from 20 to 30 pounds (9 to 14kg) of feed a day.

Riverview and Wulf Cattle also “feed cattle” through its Breeding to Feeding business.

“Satellite ranches buy our genetics, then their offspring, we buy them back, the BeefBuilder cattle,” Natasha said.

This ensures i’ts finished at the feedlot and there’s a market for the BeefBuilder offspring. BeefBuilder offspring can be purchased by Wulf Cattle at a couple of days old, right up to 300 to 400 pounds (136 to 181kg).

Natasha said two huge multinational meat processors purchase most of the BeefBuilder cattle: US company Tyson Foods, a multinational food corporation and the world’s second largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef and pork; and the meat processing arm of Cargill Inc, the largest flour milling company in the world.

According to Wulf Cattle, 90 per cent of its carcasses are United States Department of Agriculture yield grade three or more. Yield grades run from one − the highest yielding carcass − to five which is the lowest. A yield grade is an estimate of the percentage retail yield on the carcass for four cuts − the chuck, rib, loin and round.

Riverview continues to expand its dairy operations in the US as it gains cost efficiencies thanks to large scale production.

Natasha said its BeefBuilder side of the business would grow with the dairy farms.

She told the crowd value-adding the dairy calves not only provided a reliable income stream, it helped them stay “tour ready and YouTube ready”.

Natasha explained this phrase implied the business had nothing to hide and was always operating at optimum animal welfare standards. Eliminating the “waste” of bull calves was key to this value, while also providing income, she said.