Beef on Dairy Genetics

Andrew Sandeen, PennState Extension

Selecting the right traits when crossing your dairy cows with beef is important to maintain a marketable product.

Photo: Andrew Sandeen, Penn State Extension

The use of beef sires in dairy herds has increased dramatically in recent years. McWhorter et al. (2020) noted that the number of matings of beef breed sires to dairy cows more than doubled from 2015 to 2019. On a similar note, Geiger (2020) reported a 128% increase in domestic semen sales of beef breeds in just two years, totaling 5.8 million units in 2019. Much, if not all, of the increase has been attributed to use in the dairy industry.

McWhorter et al. (2020) also observed that 87% of the beef on dairy matings were Angus bulls crossed with Holstein cows. Included in their research article is a list of the specific Angus bulls that met their research criteria and were used most frequently for AI service of dairy females from 2016 through 2019. The table below shows the top ten Angus bulls, along with associated genetic characteristics of each one as of November 2020.

EPDs of Top Ten Angus Bulls Used for AI Service in Dairy Herds From 2016 Through 2019

Data source: American Angus Association. Red (negative) and green (positive) highlights selected by the author.





Expected Progeny Difference (EPD) values, such as the ones in the table above, are commonly used to predict how the future progeny of an individual beef bull will perform relative to progeny of other bulls within the same breed. Some of the most useful EPDs for selecting a beef bull to use with dairy females are as follows:

Calving Ease Direct (CED) – percentage of unassisted births; a higher value is usually preferable
Birth Weight (BW) – in pounds
Weaning Weight (WW) – in pounds
Yearling Weight (YW) – in pounds
Residual Average Daily Gain (RADG) – pounds of gain per day, given a constant amount of feed consumed
Yearling Height (YH) – in inches
Carcass Weight (CW) – hot carcass weight in pounds
Marbling (Marb) – a fraction of the difference in USDA marbling score; higher is better
Ribeye Area (RE) – in square inches





Do particular traits really matter if you are just trying to get a black-colored cross to sell? The short answer – yes. A standard marketing concept applies to this situation. Dairy producers who hope to have a long-term outlet for crosses need to ensure they are providing the best products possible in order to keep customers coming back for more. If there are too many disappointing outcomes with beef on dairy crosses, there is risk that the market may dry up.

Looking at the bulls in the table above, a Holstein producer might choose not to use Empire to avoid crosses that are too tall (long), while a Jersey producer might avoid Thunder because his growth characteristics are not as good as the other choices. Both producers might want to use Profit Driven because of the expected improvement he provides for ribeye area (i.e. muscle development).





Specific to the Angus breed, there is a Beef Value ($B) terminal index that considers multiple traits for meat production. However, this index was created with beef on beef matings in mind, not dairy females. In the summer of 2020, two new Angus indexes were introduced, the $Angus x Holstein ($AxH) index and the $Angus x Jersey ($AxJ) index, to target a combination of genetics that will produce what the meat industry is looking for. Growth, muscle development (e.g. RE), and calving ease are emphasized for both indexes, and there is less emphasis on marbling, since dairy breeds already tend to have good marbling. With the $AxH index, there is a negative emphasis on YH to help moderate carcass length. Though the real impact of these new indexes has not yet been seen, it is expected that they will be a helpful tool for selection of Angus sires. They do not, however, apply to other breeds which could just as well be considered for producing good beef on dairy crosses.

Though a survey by Halfman and Sterry (2019) revealed that beef semen cost was the number one selection criterium for dairy producers, using whatever is cheapest and most readily available is not recommended. Consider the EPD makeup for any bull candidates. Consider different breed options, since excellent growth and muscle development can be achieved with breeds such as Limousin or Simmental, while not sacrificing meat quality. Consider how a particular bull might impact calving ease. Consider the resulting calf and how marketable it will be. Consider the long-term customer and what they need.

For more information on evaluating trait information, see this article: ” Understanding EPDs and Genomic Testing in Beef Cattle .” There are already some good tools to help make educated beef on dairy decisions, and there are surely more to come as we learn more about what is going to work well for both the dairy and beef industries. The use of beef sires for producing crossbred calves for the beef market will likely continue; we just need to learn the important lessons along the way and make sure to keep as many happy customers as possible.

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