By Connor Lynch
OSGOODE — Dairy farmers are breeding beef bulls to their lowest-producing dairy cows to boost earnings by selling beef calves, said Osgoode-area dairy farmer Steve Velthuis, who is breeding the high-end Japanese Wagyu beef animals into his dairy herd.
Why? There are way too many replacement heifers on Ontario dairy farms, he said. Sexed semen was a small revolution for dairy farmers, allowing them to breed dairy cows and skip bulls. But it drove the market for replacement animals into the ground because it was so easy to breed them yourself.
Velthuis said that the market is so bad that he can’t even sell a milking two-year-old for cost. “There’s way too many heifers kicking around.”
But breeding beef into your herd is another story. The beef animals score a premium at the sale barn. “Make a beef calf and take the extra $100, instead of getting nothing on a bob calf,” Velthuis said.
This could spell trouble for small-scale beef producers, said Velthuis. Get enough dairy producers on the bandwagon and those dairy-beef crossbreeds suddenly dominate the marketplace. “We can out-produce (beef herds) two-fold; we’ve got the numbers,” he said.
Dundas County dairy farmer Nick Thurler, near Mountain, said he’s heard of producers breeding beef bulls with dairy cows and has even done it himself. But he isn’t sure how widespread it is. Purely from an economics perspective it makes sense, he said. Raising a heifer calf costs around $2,400 by the time she’s ready to milk. “And now you can only get maybe $1,800 for it.”
But for the most part, Thurler, who milks 480 cows, now relies on a bigger pool of replacement animals for his farm. “I’ve got a lot of cows, so there’s always problem cows I could ship for beef and milk a younger cow (instead),” he said. There’s an advantage on price too: an Angus straw costs between $12 and $15, where a Holstein straw is between $35 and $60.
Genetic solutions manager with Semex, Mark Carson, said the boom has been building for about three years in Ontario. Some farms were doing a bit of breeding beef bulls into dairy herds and it took about a year before it really took off, he said. Sexed semen definitely played a role but he said there’s more to the picture. Breeding beef was also a way for farmers to clear out bottom-end genetics in their herds, and beef semen seems to be a bit more fertile than dairy semen. That makes it a good way to keep a good milking animal that’s hard to breed in production.
Black Angus seem to be the most popular choice of bull semen, he said, as sales keep going up. A second-best-at-everything kind of animal, it’s a good no-fuss type choice for producers just trying to make a couple of extra dollars.
Though exact numbers are hard to come by, Carson said that the boom in demand suggests that breeding beef is rapidly “going mainstream.” It’s rapidly become a bigger part of the business, said beef specialist and regional sales manager for EastGen, Scott Cornish. About two years ago, selling beef semen to dairy producers was around four per cent of their business. This year to date, it’s 15 per cent. “It’s grown astronomically.”