Beef Embryos in Dairy Cows can be Profitable for Dairies

Published on Tue, 01/12/2021 - 10:32am

Beef Embryos in Dairy Cows can be Profitable for Dairies

 By Heather Smith Thomas.

 Some dairies seeking new ways to increase profitability find that purchase and implanting of beef embryos, utilizing lower-end-genetic animals in the dairy herd as recipients, can produce more valuable offspring. Genetically superior cows are bred with sexed semen for heifer replacement, and the rest of the herd can produce beef calves.

Paul Heinrich owns a feedlot in Colorado and several years ago started working on a project with a major restaurant chain to evaluate types of beef.  “They wanted high-quality young beef.  We evaluated everything from a Holstein steer to a fat Black Angus and everything in between, looking at red meat yield,” he says.

“The dairy-beef cross calves are at least one full yield grade leaner than most beef calves, but the marbling is still there. Once we decided that the F1 cross was what we wanted to harvest for this restaurant customer, we realized that these calves were not all the same.”  It depends a lot on which breeds are used in the cross.

“We started having trouble locating ideal dairy-beef cross calves. The dairies were buying beef semen in large quantities, negotiating the price of semen down to almost nothing.  The semen companies had a lot of Angus, Simmental and Limousin semen they were no longer selling—because maybe those bulls were no longer popular or relevant for today’s genetics.  That older semen was dumped into dairies at about $5 per straw and many of those calves were not quite the quality we wanted,” says Heinrich.

“So we started investing in genetics.  I hired a young geneticist to go through the Angus database and told him what I was looking for.  We found some dairy partners who took that semen and we started feeding those calves.”

The geneticist was also working for a large embryo transfer company.  “We wondered about putting in a beef embryo and eliminating the dairy genetics.  They were working on a project to mass produce embryos and lower the cost.  We started a program to artificially inseminate dairy cows with a variety of bulls we owned, but at the same time started putting in embryos from those same bulls bred to commercial Angus females,” he says.

“We wanted to raise them all in the same environment to see how much better (or worse) those calves were—all the way through the packing plant—and see if it would make sense (and dollars) to have a dairy invest $50 for an embryo rather than $5 for a straw of semen,” he explains.

The calves were all raised the same and were by the same sires, bred to different females.  “Those calves are now starting to go through the packing plant, and we don’t have numbers yet to say whether this program makes sense or not, but we have data on the early stages, from conception.”

Historically, conception rates for beef semen used in dairy cows has been around 40%.  “If a dairy is buying a $5 straw of semen (low end of price), they would have about $12.50 invested in getting that cow bred because it might take 2 or 3 heat cycles.  With an embryo we were actually getting a 55% pregnancy rate.  If the embryo cost $50, the dairy would have about $90 into the cost of a beef calf from a dairy cow,” he explains.

“We actually got the embryo cost down to about $30 (utilizing ovaries from open Angus heifers from slaughterhouses—harvesting the eggs for in vitro fertilization), so that made it about $50 difference between an embryo calf and a dairy cross calf.  The dairies loved it, however, because we got those cows pregnant earlier, calving earlier, and milking earlier,” says Heinrich.

“We’ve also been putting in embryos from seedstock donor cows, to produce a more valuable calf, but they cost more (maybe $300 for a purebred embryo versus $30 for mass-produced commercial beef embryos), and results disappointing.  The conception rates on those heifer calves (from purebred embryos), after they reach maturity, seem drastically less than when the recip is a traditional beef cow that raises that calf and nurses it for 7 months.  The bull calves also seem inferior—muscle-wise.”  Something about the uterine environment of the dairy cow, and the way those calves are raised artificially rather than nursing a beef surrogate mother makes a difference.

“I don’t think dairy cows have enough nutrients for a proper uterine environment.  Most of those calves are deficient in selenium and vitamin D when they are born.  We had a few cases of white muscle disease.  We’ve also had cases where the embryo beef calves were considerably larger at birth (some 160-pound embryo calves), which means difficult birth or a C-section.  In some instances their lungs or their hearts are under-developed and they have fluid buildup—and we lose them at a later date,” he says.

“There are some seedstock people making this work but unless you are giving those dairy cows a tremendous nutritional advantage in terms of vitamins and minerals, it doesn’t work.  Dairies right now are losing money and are not going to spend money to get those cows in better condition when the result might be to lose more money,” he says.  

“We’re no longer trying to utilize embryos from elite seedstock because we are not getting elite calves, so we temporarily halted that program, but are still working with lower-cost mass-produced beef embryos.  We just don’t have all our results yet to know whether they will make more money for the dairyman than using beef semen to produce crossbred calves,” says Heinrich.
“We monitor calves’ average daily gain in the first 120 days of life and how much milk the calves consume during that time.  There is some difference between the beef calves and dairy-beef cross calves,” he says.

Dr. Matthew Rolleston, Rolleston Veterinary Services, St. Albans, Maine does a reproductive work for dairies and is currently working with a 750-cow Jersey farm transferring frozen beef embryos.  

The top 5 to 10% of the herd are utilized to produce replacement heifers; they produce embryos for IVF and those embryos are implanted into some of the other cows. About 40% get Jersey embryos and 60% get beef embryos.  

“We have an IVF (in vitro fertilization) program, taking the top Jerseys in the herd and aspirating eggs to fertilize and create embryos to transfer into recipient cows to raise elite Jersey heifers.  We aspirate eggs from those top cows monthly, and transfer the embryos from them into other cows,” he says.  Those elite cows are producing the eggs to be fertilized with sexed semen.
“The other 60% of the herd are getting beef embryos rather than receiving beef semen or sexed semen.  We are getting all the heifers we need from the top cows and everything else gets beef embryos,” he explains.  The reason we’re doing embryo transfers rather than just breeding the cows AI is that we have a better pregnancy rate using embryos.  It only takes about 2 services per pregnancy using beef embryos.  Prior to starting this program, the dairy was just doing AI--using sexed Jersey semen, and a lot of beef semen to create beef cross calves.  The problem with this in Jersey cows was that some of the crossbred calves were not black.”  These calves were not worth as much.

“Even using a homozygous black bull—whether Angus or Limousin—a few of those calves, crossed with Jersey, end up with a brown tinge.  The crossbred beef calf looks like a Jersey, and not worth anything as a beef animal--discounted as much as a Jersey bull calf—even though it is half beef,” says Rolleston.

Using a beef embryo, to produce a full-blood beef calf, solves this problem.  “We will have black-hided 100% beef calves, and generate more profit for the dairy.  Some of the bulls we thought would be really good for creating crossbred calves didn’t always produce black calves, and a dairy loses a lot of money on those,” he explains.  The sale barns were also starting to discount dairy-beef cross heifer calves even if they were black.

Producing beef calves instead will ensure better prices for the calves since there will be a lot more consistency.  “We’ve talked with local people who like to raise their own beef and don’t mind bottle feeding the calves—especially if they are not born during winter here in Maine.  I think we’ll be able to market the newborn beef calves locally for $150 per calf, and our potential customers are very excited about being able to purchase the calves at that price,” says Rolleston.

It does cost a little more to put in embryos rather than semen, but with increase in conception rate it’s not very different (taking fewer heat cycles to produce a pregnancy).  If those cows freshen quicker, that’s a plus.

The cost for embryo transfer is minimal.  “On this farm I just charge an hourly rate, so as many as I can put in, per hour, is what it costs.  I can normally put in about 15 to 20 per hour, so each embryo transfer only costs about $8 to $10,” he says.  This isn’t much more than the cost of beef semen.

The beef embryos are from Trans Ova, are created from Angus or Stabilizer bulls (composite cattle with a blend of British and continental genetics) bred to commercial Angus cows.  “They are aspirating eggs from those cows, working with a university program, teaching their technicians how to aspirate cows before they do it for clients.  Then they use those aspirated eggs in their lab to teach their lab personnel how to do the in-vitro fertilization process in that program,” he says.  The embryos purchased for the dairy are a by-product of this teaching program.

Brian Houin (Homestead Dairy, at Plymouth, Indiana, milking just under 5000 cows) has also tried using beef embryos.  He says the cows and heifers they plan to breed are always ranked.  “Based on what we need for replacements, we breed the cows with top genetics to Holstein semen and the bottom end to beef,” he says.

“We’ve been doing this for 3 years, using a spread sheet with conception rates and cull rates and pull information from DairyComp (an advanced Dairy Management Software program--to keep track of all information on reproduction, production and health of any cow) and rank the animals.  It tells you that from that group of animals you can expect x number of heifers.  If you need to adjust it you can adjust the percentage of your herd that you breed to Holstein or beef semen,” he says.

His dairy has also done some embryo transfer, using purebred Angus embryos, just to see if there’s much difference.  “So far we haven’t seen a big enough benefit to go that route,” he says. At this point he will probably stick with just using beef semen.

The crossbred calves do well in the feedlot and have been grading well.  The dairy and beef genetics complement each other for beef production.  “We are not using cheap beef semen.  You need to use high-quality beef sires.  Many dairy farms are doing this now; they are not doing it exactly the same way I am, but they’re breeding the bottom end of their dairy cows to beef breeds and selling the offspring as day-old calves.  They are worth more than a day-old dairy calf,” he says.