Growth Performance, Carcass Traits and Feeder Calf Value of Beef × Holstein and Holstein Feedlot Steers

May 13, 2024

By Jerad Jaborek and Jeannine Schweihofer

Holstein (HO) cattle represent approximately 20% of the U.S. fed beef supply from surplus heifer and bull calves. Although dairy steers produce high-quality grading beef, they typically have less desirable feed conversions and poorer health compared to beef steers. Holsteins are often discounted when compared to beef breeds due to their lower dressing percentage and flatter muscle shape. Additionally, the decision of a major U.S. processing plant to no longer buy HO fed steers has further decreased their value. As described in an article in Dairy Herd Management, since 2017, there has been a considerable increase in the use of beef sires on low milk production dairy females in the U.S. to increase calf value and overall economic return for dairy producers.

European and dated data from the U.S. indicates that compared with their HO contemporaries, beef × Holstein (B×HO) cattle may have improved performance, as well as greater carcass weight and dressing percentage.1 However, most available data regarding B×HO cattle originate outside of North America, are more than 40 years old and are not aligned with current U.S. production systems and breed genetics. Therefore, we designed a study to compare a B×HO and straightbred HO steer production system and calculate feeder calf breakeven.

This study used 60 B×HO and 60 HO steers that were sourced from multiple dairies through a single Michigan calf grower at approximately 4 months of age. Steers were transported to the MSU Beef Cattle Teaching and Research Center in Lansing, Mich., and processed after feedlot arrival before being separated into pens by breed type. On day zero, 60 steers of each breed type were blocked by body weight and randomly allocated by breed type to one of 20 bedded pens (14 × 38 ft.). Steers were fed a common starter diet similar to that previously fed at the calf grower and were then slowly transitioned to a common finishing diet that consisted of 43.6% high moisture shelled corn, 25.0% corn silage, 25.3% dry corn distillers grains, 5.0% pelleted supplement with monensin and 1.1% limestone on a dry matter basis.

To harvest the steers on a similar compositional basis, a common endpoint was determined by predicting empty body fat percentage with an equation that used ultrasound estimated fat thickness and ribeye area, along with an estimate of quality grade and hot carcass weight. After harvest, carcass data were collected at a commercial processing plant 48-hours post chill (JBS, Plainwell, Mich.).

The experimental design was a randomized complete block design with pens serving as the experimental unit. Unrelated to breed type, one HO and four B×HO steers were removed from the trial due to morbidity or mortality, and one B×HO carcass was unavailable for data collection at the processing plant.

Genomic testing revealed that the beef genotypes of B×HO steers originated from Angus (35.3%), Limousin (27.5%), LimFlex (11.8%), Simmental (7.8%) and SimAngus (17.6%). All HO steers were verified as straightbred HO.

The B×HO and HO steers started the study with the same initial body weight (Table 1). The HO steers required an additional 21 days on feed to reach the desired empty body fat percentage, resulting in a tendency for them to have a greater final body weight than B×HO steers. From day zero to harvest, average daily gain tended to be 5% greater for B×HO steers compared with HO steers, however average daily dry matter intake was the same between the breed types. The B×HO steers were 4% more feed efficient than HO steers. Due to processing plant general concerns regarding large frame size in dairy-type carcasses, hip height before harvest was measured, with HO steers being 3.7 inches taller than B×HO steers. This resulted in B×HO steers having a more moderate frame score than HO steers, which was 1.9 units less on a 10-point scale. Health was similar between the breed types, with no significant differences observed in morbidity or mortality. The B×HO and HO steers were fed for 245 and 266 days, respectively.

Table 1. Feedlot growth and finishing performance of straightbred Holstein and beef × Holstein steers


Liver and lung data were only available for collection from B×HO steers. We found that 39% of livers from B×HO steers had at least one abscess. Lung lesions were scored, with 21% having at least some apparent consolidation (i.e., tissue damage) from respiratory disease.

Hot carcass weight and percentage of kidney, pelvic and heart fat were similar between B×HO and HO carcasses (Table 2). The B×HO carcasses had a numerically greater dressing percentage (59.1%) compared with HO carcasses (57.9%). Fat thickness at the twelfth rib was an average of 0.16 inches greater for B×HO carcasses compared with HO carcasses. The B×HO carcasses had 20% larger ribeye area compared with HO carcasses. The larger ribeye area of B×HO carcasses resulted in lower, more desirable calculated USDA Yield Grade compared with HO carcasses. Marbling scores were not different between the breed types, resulting in similar USDA Quality Grades for B×HO and HO carcasses. The marbling scores of B×HO and HO carcasses were lower than what is typically expected from dairy-type cattle in U.S. production systems and indicate the potential need for additional days on feed. Empty body fat, determined with carcass measures, was similar between B×HO and HO carcasses, indicating that the breed types were harvested at an equitable composition endpoint.

Table 2. Carcass characteristics of straightbred Holstein and beef × Holstein steers harvested at similar percentages of empty body fat


1Marbling scores are based on a numeric scale: 400-499 = small, and 500-599 = modest.

The B×HO feeder calves had a purchase cost that was $309/calf greater (Table 3) than that of HO feeder calves, resulting in a greater cattle interest charge for the crossbreds. The HO steers remained on feed for 21 days longer than B×HO steers, resulting in a $95 greater total feed cost for HO steers. Most non-feed operating costs were the same for the breed types due to study design, resulting in these costs being similar between the breed types. Due to the lower feed cost of B×HO steers, their total cost of gain was $0.07/lb. less than HO steers.

Table 3. Total feedlot costs of straightbred Holstein and beef × Holstein steers


Carcass value of B×HO carcasses was $5.65/cwt greater than HO carcasses after applying premiums and discounts (Table 4). Total revenue from B×HO carcasses were similar to that from HO carcasses. Breakeven feeder calf value of B×HO steers was $37.65/cwt greater compared with HO feeder calves. Based on body weight at purchasing, B×HO feeder calves used for this study were worth $138.14/calf more compared with HO feeder calves.

Table 4. Carcass and breakeven value for straightbred Holstein and beef × Holstein steers


Overall, B×HO steers had similar daily dry matter intakes and health outcomes, but tended to have a greater average daily gain, were more feed efficient, finished with fewer days on feed and had a lower cost of gain when compared with HO steers. Most carcass traits were similar with the notable differences of larger ribeye area and greater fat thickness observed in B×HO carcasses. The B×HO steers also had greater overall carcass value and breakeven feeder calf value. These results show that breeding beef sires to dairy females can result in steers capable of attaining a beef-type conformation which adds value over HO steers. Further research is necessary to develop optimal strategies to consistently produce B×HO carcasses with conformation and value similar to beef-type carcasses.

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