The Dairy Herd is a Diversification Factory
Dustin T. Dean, PhD
Director of Beef Programs
Diversification is a key strategy of investing. It is also a skill honed by just about every successful dairyman today. U.S. dairymen could write a “How To” book on making the most of resources.
Whether it is marketing manure for fertilizer or converting a percentage of the cows to organic, the proof of their ability is evident. Still, as technology improves, more opportunities arise, and such is the case with the uterus of the dairy female.
With economic conditions changing almost on a daily basis, producers greatly need the ability for efficient diversification. As reproductive technology improves, such as sexed semen, dairymen have the opportunity to use their female herd as a massive production factory. For this factory to operate at maximum efficiency, its manager needs to evaluate the potential to produce more than one kind of product.
Until now, most dairymen have only used sexed semen as a way to produce more replacement females. However, with the dairy female’s uterus as the star of the show, combining it with different kinds of sexed semen opens many opportunities.
Product 1) Producing Replacement Females:
When dairymen create quality replacement females, they aim to achieve that goal with the best genetics possible at the lowest cost. On most operations, the very best genetics come from heifers. So naturally, dairymen should strive to produce as many replacement females from that genetic pool as possible.
A 50% female and 50% male calf ratio is the best one could technically achieve with the use of conventional semen. The questions here should be: Is a 50% product success rate efficient enough? How much less factory cost and more revenue would a product success rate of 90% deliver?
Utilizing female sexed semen enables dairymen to produce heifer calves with a 90% degree of accuracy. Combining this 90% level of accuracy with the “new and improved” genetics of dairy heifers within the herd ensures replacement females are created out of the very best genetics possible.
In doing so, the overall performance of the herd improves exponentially year to year which results in a maximum level of efficiency within this product line. Additionally, as the market for dairy heifers rises in the future, dairymen simply increase their use of female sexed semen to efficiently meet that product demand.
Product 2) F1 Dairy/Beef Steers with the use of Male Sexed Beef Semen:
The current U.S. beef cow herd is the smallest it has been since 1940. Escalating land prices, feed costs, strenuous drought, and many other hardships contribute to the decline in beef cow numbers.
What is constantly on the rise is a growing population of red-blooded Americans who love their beef. There’s no question this country is going to need more beef. The industry has done an outstanding job of increasing the red meat yield of the U.S. beef animal. However, the retail product of that animal can only go so far with a shrinking national cow herd. This presents a unique opportunity for dairymen.
Enter male sexed beef semen. Once managers identify the primary dairy females to produce replacement heifers, the remaining females can then be inseminated with male sexed beef semen from top carcass performance bulls. The resulting F1 dairy/beef steer would then enter the beef production sector alongside traditional beef steers.
There have obviously been crossbred beef/dairy steers and heifers fed before for beef production. Most of these were made by simply turning an average Angus bull out with the females. However, what sets this F1 steer apart from the past is its unique combination of predictability and increased red meat yield. The basis behind this F1 is the consistency of dairy genetics coupled with proven beef carcass performance.
The primary reason feedyards and packers enjoy dairy steers is their unparalleled level of predictability. Operators know from past experience exactly what protocol to follow in order to maximize performance of dairy steers. This unique F1 would capitalize on this homogenous performance and add more carcass dressing percentage, pounds of marbled product and feed efficiency.
It is well documented steers are more efficient than heifers in the feedyard and at slaughter, which makes the ability to choose a sex in this scenario of upmost importance. These steers would be sired out of top performing beef bulls available through specific AI studs or from certain ranches. It’s exciting to imagine thousands of F1 dairy/beef steers bringing the documented predictability of dairy performance, and top performing carcass genetics of a beef bull in to one package. At this level, things start to become pretty serious.
Product 3) Contracting with beef seedstock operations to deliver high quality recipient females for embryo transfer:
When you talk with beef operations that utilize embryo transfer, one of the major complaints is the difficulty they encounter when trying to locate quality recipient females. Most of the time, not just any cow will work, which is why many successful ET technicians prefer recipient females of certain breed type combinations.
In the south, that female is a Dairy/Brahman F1. This F1 recipient female brings a great combination of fertility, milk production and heat tolerance, while boasting a solid reputation for mothering ability and very high conception rates. Since it is a Bos Taurus/Bos Indicus cross, the level of hybrid vigor is tremendous.
Tropical countries like Mexico are a natural export market for dairy/Brahman F1 females, providing the producer with multiple marketing opportunities. Buy-back contracts for dairy/Brahman cross females are also available from Sexing Technologies.
In the northern U.S., the preferred female is a dairy/Angus or dairy/Hereford, which offers great milk production, mothering ability and cold tolerance. It is common for these females to bring top dollar even in difficult times.
The American Embryo Transfer Association (AETA) can provide a list of Embryo Transfer practitioners in your area who can serve as a resource for potential contracts. County or state beef cattle shows may also be a good place to meet potential clients.
Product 4) Implanting embryos made with sexed semen:
Currently, Sexing Technologies is harvesting ovaries from a Holstein cow slaughter plant in the northeastern U.S. Ovaries are removed from the cull females harvested in the plant, and paid for by the pound. The oocytes are then collected and fertilized in vitro (in a lab) with sexed semen from various breeds. This procedure could be viewed as a recycling method for the industry. Why not harvest the oocytes and fertilize them with female sexed dairy semen from proven dairy bulls? The resulting female dairy embryo can be implanted to produce a replacement heifer much like those in Product #1.
Replacement heifers produced in this case might be referred to as secondary replacements, given half their genetics comes from cull females in the slaughter plant. This would be an interesting option when milk prices make a comeback and the industry rebuilds its herd. What about producing dairy/beef embryos from the harvested oocytes? The same top performing beef bull applied in Product #2 could be used to fertilize the oocytes harvested from the cull females. Only in this case, a single straw of sexed semen can be utilized to make almost 100 embryos.
It should be noted that it is common to see better conception rates in dairy cattle for embryo transfer than for artificial insemination. Dairymen should take this in-to consideration for older lactating females with a more difficult time conceiving through AI.
Perhaps the cheaply produced “slaughter house” embryos are a viable alternative. They could increase conception rates on older cows, which would result in less open head days compared to AI.
Sexed semen is a relatively new technology. However, it is evident the use of sexed semen does offers dairymen more immediate alternatives to efficiently diversify their operation. This is still a business, and successful businesses are constantly searching for new means to operate more proficiently.
Dairymen have the cow factory, so why not explore viable products sexed semen can provide to maximize efficiency?