Dairy expands to bulls and beef
He breeds and raises beef and beef-dairy crosses
KARS — The bull calves born at Cranberry Creek Dairy Farms avoid the typical dairy-farm fate: They don’t go to the sale barn at the earliest opportunity. Instead, they are raised alongside their Holstein heifer sisters.
Farm manager Jake Meeks says the farm took this direction about five years ago, with the goal of producing more finished beef from the offspring of the dairy herd. The idea was easier to swallow than the near worthless value of dairy bull calves at the time.
“We raise 100 % of everything that’s born here,” Meeks proudly says, showing a visitor around nine different pen areas at the farmstead where the young stock, of both sexes, graduate in groups through different age stages. Older buildings are finding renewed purpose sheltering the continuous pipeline of young stock.
The Holstein females are destined to join the 120-head milking herd in the ultra-modern robotic barn built in 2012. Their male Holstein counterparts are eventually sold as live animals for the beef market. Most of the males are castrated into steers, though Meeks has experimented with leaving some bulls intact and still allows a few through the system this way. “We didn’t see much growth difference,” he says, comparing the castrated and non-castrated males.
Bull meat can develop an off flavour if the intact animal is allowed to breed, he says, which means full grown bulls don’t fetch as much as steers. Castration also avoids the extra danger posed by notoriously ornery dairy bulls as they get closer to maturity.
For the last couple of years, the young stock collection has been bolstered with dairy-beef crosses — males and females — which are also bound for the beef market once they hit the desired age. Dairy-beef crosses now account for 20 % to 30 % of all calf births at Cranberry, he says. They are the offspring of the dairy herd when crossed with either Angus and, in a few cases, Speckled Spark sires. Meeks has also bred a small number of the dairy-cross females to produce three-quarter Angus calves.
About 15 calves are born monthly on the farm, he says. Seen together, they’re a mix of full-blooded dairy black-and-whites and dairy-beef crosses that are mostly black but also dusty speckled. Their varied faces peek out from a long line of individual calf hutches at the youngest stage of the process. The calves graduate to a series of different group pens as they grow. The Holstein females wind up segregated in the new heifer barn — built five years ago — as they get closer to breeding age.
The males have green ear tags and names starting with the first letter of the month in which they were born. The females have white ear tags but no names, just numbers. “That’s just my superstition,” Meeks says, smiling. “If you get too attached to animals, they too often get sick, is my theory.” Hence, the all-important females — the farm still is a dairy operation after all — go unnamed. But that’s where the discrimination ends. He says both sexes are raised with the same level of care.
Meeks says they ship about 100 animals annually for beef, with about 75 of those being male. Billy Toll of Toll Gate Farms handles marketing and transportation. They’re sold at live weights through a number of sale barns, wherever Toll spots the best opportunity. “I give him about a month’s notice, and he finds a market for them,” Meeks says. Some of the dairy-beef crosses — which he says are worth about 75 cents per pound more than dairy animals — have gone to Cargill’s meat packing plant in Guelph where they fetch a more desirable dressed weight price.
The age of animals shipped depends on beef market conditions, but they’re at least old enough to be on a regular TMR ration before they leave the farm. “Sometimes they’re here for 6 months and sometimes they’re here for 30 months,” he says. “When the veal market was really high this spring, we sold 30 animals at the 600-pound mark.”
He estimates that animals raised for beef now account for 5 % to 10 % of overall farm revenues. And the farm still comes out ahead raising dairy bulls, he says, even after the recent rise in bull calf prices.
On the expense side, he says that the young stock consume the equivalent of 25 or 30 acres of cropland, which includes the production of 300 litres of milk fed daily to the younger animals. One employee is also dedicated to the task of raising the calves.
Improvements are ongoing to accommodate this important beef sideline. The old original Cranberry Creek dairy barn, now pressed into service for young stock, will be getting new steel siding to improve its esthetics, he says. “Every year we just kind of make things go better, learn from our mistakes and try to do a better job overall of what we’re doing.”
Meeks lives on site with his wife, Beth, and their young son, Ari. He’s worked on the farm since he was a teenager for the late Mark Lindsay, his mentor, who died in an accident at the farm 10 years ago this fall. Lindsay family partners in the operation include Mark’s widow, Anne, and Mark’s parents, Eldon and Betty Lindsay.