Proof Positive – Research on Raising Dairy Steers Provides Insights

By Brad Heins and Elizabeth Bjorklund, University of Minnesota

The following was presented through a poster in the 2013 Organic Research Forum at the 2013 MOSES Organic Farming Conference.

With the extreme drought conditions in the Upper Midwest during 2012, many dairy producers continue to be worried about high grain and hay prices. Therefore, producers are reducing the amount of grain fed to cattle to reduce feed costs and maintain profitability. At the West Central Research and Outreach Center’s organic dairy, we recently completed a study where we evaluated the effects of growth, meat quality, and profitability of conventionally raised dairy steers compared to organically raised dairy steers. This project was funded by a North Central SARE graduate student grant.

There is an increase in global demand for organic products, especially grass-fed and finished. Consumers are becoming more concerned about the origins of food, and grass-fed beef and organic beef has the potential to address some of the concerns. Bull calves may represent a potential additional source of revenue for organic dairy producers. Currently, with the high price of organic grains in the United States, the male offspring of organic Holstein and crossbred dairy cattle represent a potential resource for pasture-raised beef in the Midwest.

This research study used bull calves born from March to May 2011 from the WCROC dairy. They were evaluated for growth, meat quality, consumer acceptability, and profitability over the next 14 to 20 months. Breed groups of calves were: Holstein; crossbreds that included combinations of Holstein, Montbéliarde, and Swedish Red; and crossbreds that included combinations of Holstein, Jersey, Swedish Red, and Normande. The bull calves were assigned to one of three groups at birth: conventional, organic (pasture plus concentrate), and organic-grass only (100% pasture). The conventional steers were fed a diet of 80% concentrate and 20% roughage and received Component E-S hormone implants. The organic steers were fed a diet of organic corn and organic corn silage, and at least 30% of their diet consisted of organic pasture during the grazing season. The grass-only steers grazed pasture during the grazing season and were fed high quality hay or hay silage during the non-grazing season.

The conventional steers were sent to slaughter July 24, 2012 to the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Dakota City, Neb. and the organic and grass-only steers were sent to Lorentz Meats, Cannon Falls, Minn. on Sept. 19, 2012 and Nov. 13, 2012, respectively. Strip loins were collected for a consumer taste panel, which allowed 100 beef consumers to rate the beef for overall liking and flavor. Profit was defined to include revenues and expenses for beef value, feed cost, pasture cost, health cost, and yardage.

The table on page 11 shows results for conventional dairy steers compared to organic and grass-only dairy steers. The grass-only dairy steers had greater days to slaughter, lower slaughter weights, lower gains from birth to slaughter, and had lower average daily gains than conventional steers. Conventional steers had 466 days to slaughter, organic had 528 days to slaughter, and grass-only had 584 days to slaughter. Slaughter weights (lb) were 1,263 (conventional), 1,037 (organic), and 884 (grass-only). Average daily gains from birth (lb/day) were 2.52 (conventional), 1.79 (organic), and 1.35 (grass-only). As expected, steers fed higher amounts of grain and concentrate had carcasses with greater fat thickness, larger ribeye area, and higher yield grades than steers fed higher amounts of pasture.

The fat from the grass-only steers was higher in Omega-3 fatty acid and lower in monounsaturated and saturated fat, which may indicate potential health benefits of grass-fed beef. Consumers who rated the beef found no significant difference for overall liking for the conventional and organic beef. The organic beef had significantly higher flavor liking than the conventional beef. However, consumers rated the grass-only beef the lowest in overall liking and flavor liking.

For profitability, grain costs were substantially higher for the organic steers, and therefore, resulted in a net loss per steer (-$644/steer). The higher cost of production for the organic steers is due to the extremely high value of organic corn ($15.90/bushel, January 2013). The grass-only steers had the highest profit per steer ($593 vs. $442) compared to conventional steers because of lower feed costs, mainly pasture. Economically, GRASS steers had 25% greater profit per steer, than CONV steers. On the other hand, ORG steers had 169% less profit per steer than CONV steers. Therefore, a low-grain ration may reduce feed costs without sacrificing profit in an organic dairy system, assuming the grass-fed steers can be marketed at a premium price based on the production system.

The conventional steers grew much faster and required less time to slaughter than grass-only steers. However, grass-only steers required fewer resources than conventional steers. Organic dairy producers trying to seek relief from high grain prices, who have a little “extra” pasture, may be able to make a profit from feeding organic dairy steers versus selling them to conventional markets.

The results of the current study suggest there may be a potential market for the male offspring of organic dairy cattle in the Midwest. The most important point for reducing inputs and increasing profits in organic dairy systems is to produce high quality forages and maximize dry matter intake on pasture.

*West Central Research and Outreach Center, Morris, Minn. For more information, contact: Brad Heins, Assistant Professor, Organic Dairy Management, (320) 589-1711 or

May/June 2013

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