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Advice for raising dairy bull calves for meat

 
Posts: 6
Location: Western North Carolina (zone 7a)
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Hi there,
Is anyone else out there raising dairy breed steers for meat? We have 3 acres of pasture, and last spring, bought two dairy bull calves that were 6 and 8 weeks old, banded them and bottle fed them for a while (can't remember how long exactly, maybe 6 more weeks?)....we had a vet out here to give them some vaccines (wish I could remember what they were exactly), and put them with our sheep. After a couple of months, it became clear that one of them was very sick, so I had the vet out here again, who mis-diagnosed the obvious (in retrospect) pneumonia. The calf ended up dying. The other calf is now over a year old and very healthy! He's in with our sheep and donkey so has some company. The one who lives is a Holstein/Jersey cross. The one that died was full Jersey. We've decided to wait another year (Fall 2021) to take this steer to the slaughterhouse. The meat will be for us and some friends. The goal with all this is to raise our own food.

All of this background is to get to my questions. I'm interested in getting another couple of dairy bull calves, and doing the same thing. To me, the pros are:
-They are cheap. They were each like $80.
-We'd be giving them a much better life, on our pasture, than almost any other option for them
-We are not set up to breed cattle - we are only a small homestead, not trying to run a major operation
-After some research, dairy breeds ARE supposed to have tasty meat, especially Jerseys. I know some people think otherwise. We haven't tired ours yet, of course, but just throwing this out there.

The major con, and my main question, is that they are unhealthy. Since they get so little time with mama cow and are just treated roughly from the start. It's been hard to find other people who do this with dairy steers, and the one person I talked to who tried it, has switched to beef breeds because they are so much hardier. But I am still interested in sticking with the dairy breeds.

I'm looking for advice to keep these calves healthy from the start and avoid pneumonia. I like the idea of as little medicine/vaccines as possible, but would do this when they are young, if that helped their chances of survival and thriving. I know now that the cross breeds will likely be hardier than pure Jersey or pure Holstein, but there isn't enough dairy calves around here to be able to pick and choose really. Anyway, any advice is appreciated!
 
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We have found that the crosses are always much stronger than purebred.  The jersey stock around here takes about 2 years to grow out.  We can get them for free sometimes here.  

Keeping them a full day with their mother is the best thing that can happen.  They must get the colostrum or they usually suffer chronic problems. There are some pretty good colostrum kits out there, but they cost more than most calves.

The jersey crosses have real nice carcasses of good quality tasty meat.  The professor at Ohio state university told me the best looking and tasting carcasses he knows of are dexter jersey crosses.

We started raising dexters.  They are smaller and the mothers take full care of the calves.  We have had them born in the snow and heavy rain and not lost one yet.  This picture was 2 months ago.  We got 5 inches of rain, 50 mile an hour wind and then it froze.  He is doing well.
IMG_20200416_114134812.jpg
[Thumbnail for IMG_20200416_114134812.jpg]
 
Samantha Morgan
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Location: Western North Carolina (zone 7a)
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Most of the bottle calves available around here have been with their mother only 1-2 days...and then they are sold (in some cases at least) not directly from the Dairy but from a sort of calf-middleman - so there's not much picking and choosing on our end. I guess by the time we could potentially get them, they are between 2 to 8 weeks old, and there's no point in feeding colostrum from a kit.

If a calf does seem to have pneumonia, do you do anything about it?

If we ever do decide to breed our own cattle, we are definitely interested in Dexters, so good to know about the dexter jersey quality meat...but at this point Im not interested in that. Maybe one day!
 
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Hi Samantha, and welcome to Permies!  I'm in a similar situation with a small bit of pasture and I've got cheap dairy calves available too.  I still haven't decided on where/if these dairy cross bottle calves could fit.  I'll leave out a ton of info, but here's what I think I know about the subject:

If proper nutrition and housing is given, the single biggest factor affecting calf health is the amount and quality of colostrum the calf consumes in the first few and 24 hours.  Unless the cow dies, all beef calves get lots of colostrum if they nurse.  Dairy (Holsteins are probably the most common dairy breed) calves may or may not get any colostrum and usually get it in lesser amounts than nursing calves.  Most dairy calves never nurse, so any colostrum is hand-fed.  Calves that are nursing benefit from the cow's immunities, which gives them another advantage.  

Cows (by this I mean all bovines) finish faster if they're smaller framed.  There are people who finish beef cattle in 18 months on grass.  They mature at about 900lbs.  This is what they've always done in Argentina.  Dairy cows these days are huge.  They have been bred for milk production on an all-ration diet and they need that in order to finish quickly.  Many beef herds are ill suited to grass finishing as they have been selecting for large frame size for decades so they can pack as much corn weight on in the feedlot.  If you want a carcass to grade well, you want fat and smaller cows can put on fat easier than larger cows and Holsteins are large and bony.  Most people I know that do Holstein crosses are selling them as commercial or utility grade beef.

Crosses benefit greatly from hybrid vigor, so it's great if you can get that.  When not breeding for replacement, dairy farms cross to beef bulls.  This makes for a smaller calf, lessening the need to do a c-section, and the offspring will fill out better.  I can see why Christopher would say that the Dexter/Jersey crosses would have great carcasses.  They're a hybrid of two small breeds so they can finish out quickly.  Holstein crosses can take up to 3 years to properly finish.

Generally, once a cow gets to 4-500lbs, they're pretty bullet-proof.  For me, it will come down to the financials and, most importantly, how it'll fit with my life.  I wouldn't want to sell a Holstein cross as much more than ground beef and, if it's for me, I'd rather raise a beef animal or a good cross.  I see a lot of Holstein bull calves up for sale from day olds right up to 4-6 months.  The day olds sell for between $25 and $75 but all the people wanting to sell them at any age shows they don't have much value around here.  Milk replacer is very expensive and I'm not sure it pays for non-beef calves.

I'll be away for about 10 hours a day working, so I'm not sure how easily they would work for me.  I think I'm going to see if I can find any dairies that use smaller breeds if I want to do it.  The flip side of the coin is buying a beef calf on weaning.  This will cost more up front, but may not cost more than a bottle calf once the milk replacer is factored in.  I would also have a calf that had been raised by the dam, so I'd expect a healthier calf.  Raising dairy calves is tricky.  

In the end I think it comes down to evaluating the factors and making the call.  If you want to make money on the cattle you will benefit from being flexible.  I've known guys who made money with bottle dairy calves but the market has to support it.  I don't think I'd ever bother with a pure Holstein calf because it wouldn't have the hybrid vigor.  If you're selling it, it takes just as much time and effort to sell 1 lb of ground for $5 as it does to sell steak at $20/lb.  One other thing to keep in mind is buying cull cows.  You can fatten them up over a month or two and then have x-lean ground.  Sometimes they're pregnant, so that's a nice bonus.

Here's a post I made in a thread on good cattle books for a book called Man, Cattle and Veld.  It's an amazing book about cattle, from diet and management to breeding and genetics.  The author is in Africa but he outlines strategies for many different environments.

By the way, great first post, so I'm giving you an apple!
 
Timothy Markus
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Samantha Morgan wrote:Most of the bottle calves available around here have been with their mother only 1-2 days...and then they are sold (in some cases at least) not directly from the Dairy but from a sort of calf-middleman - so there's not much picking and choosing on our end. I guess by the time we could potentially get them, they are between 2 to 8 weeks old, and there's no point in feeding colostrum from a kit.

If a calf does seem to have pneumonia, do you do anything about it?

If we ever do decide to breed our own cattle, we are definitely interested in Dexters, so good to know about the dexter jersey quality meat...but at this point Im not interested in that. Maybe one day!



One day of colostrum is OK and two is pretty good.  Can you find someone local who knows cattle to help you pick them out and explain what he is looking for and ruling out?  Even if you have to pay someone it would be well worth it, but I'd imagine most farmers would do it for free or very little.  It's also good to have someone local you can get advice from.  

I haven't found much difference in taste between breeds; it's mostly come down to diet and finish quality.  You can finish any animal but it's a lot easier (and cheaper) to finish small-framed cattle.  I think you'll find that you'll love any beef you raise and it'll be healthier by far than feed-lot beef.  It will also take time to learn cows and how to finish them properly in your environment.
 
Samantha Morgan
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Location: Western North Carolina (zone 7a)
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Thanks Timothy for your thoughts...all good to take into account! I luckily work from home, so bottle feeding is not too big an incursion into my life. Last spring, I actually came to enjoy it, and the calves were very tame... in fact our one still comes running when he sees us! That's another factor that is important to us, since we don't have all the cattle gates/funnels/and other infrastructure. Having a tame and friendly calf has been a lot of fun (though I will definitely have to harden my heart next Fall when it comes time to slaughter). I also don't mind the extra time it gets to come to full size, though that is good to factor in to the overall cost/benefit analysis. So far we have more than enough pasture for our livestock. I did spend some money on hay over the winter, but this year am planning to stockpile more of our pasture. I am definitely learning a lot as I go...I think the main lesson moving forward is to get a hybrid diary calf if at all possible. Thanks again!  
 
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I suspect the calf that failed was sickly from the start, and slowly went further downhill as time went on.

I'm thinking the trick would be developing a relationship with the producer of the calves you are interested in; be it by email, a club, the pub, whatever. That would get you on site, so you can evaluate the environment, and likely get you cooperation with a calf that spends at least a few days with Mum, to ensure the colostrum angle is covered.

I would also take the time to ensure you have a good vet (research now) and get any new calves evaluated the day you pick them up (swing by the office for a welfare check). One thing I did not see mentioned is deworming, or parasite control. If you have a multi species grazing set up this could be an issue with transference between species.

Husbandry is most critical with babes, navel health, temp checks, etc., should be monitored and logged, daily, at least initially, until you are more familiar with what "normal" looks like.

Pneumonia in calves is often a side effect of other conditions (gut) and bloat or displacement puts pressure on lungs. This may not have been misdiagnosed - it could have appeared later.

Chatting with the 4H organization or kids who raise calves MIGHT be your best source of info!
 
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This is fascinating stuff!
I don't ever an on raising cattle but the logistics of it are interesting.
You mentioned two calves for $80.00 and that made me think, given the high cost of beef especially these days,  I wonder if buying them and immediately having them slaughtered would make economic sense?
Their carcass weight and the butchering fee would determine that answer, I suppose.
 
Samantha Morgan
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Lorinne Anderson wrote:I suspect the calf that failed was sickly from the start, and slowly went further downhill as time went on.

I'm thinking the trick would be developing a relationship with the producer of the calves you are interested in; be it by email, a club, the pub, whatever. That would get you on site, so you can evaluate the environment, and likely get you cooperation with a calf that spends at least a few days with Mum, to ensure the colostrum angle is covered.

I would also take the time to ensure you have a good vet (research now) and get any new calves evaluated the day you pick them up (swing by the office for a welfare check). One thing I did not see mentioned is deworming, or parasite control. If you have a multi species grazing set up this could be an issue with transference between species.

Husbandry is most critical with babes, navel health, temp checks, etc., should be monitored and logged, daily, at least initially, until you are more familiar with what "normal" looks like.

Pneumonia in calves is often a side effect of other conditions (gut) and bloat or displacement puts pressure on lungs. This may not have been misdiagnosed - it could have appeared later.

Chatting with the 4H organization or kids who raise calves MIGHT be your best source of info!



Thanks Lorinne, I think you're right that the calf was sick from the start. And that's good advice to talk to a 4H club, I hadn't thought of that! Since this has been our first experience with cattle, I didn't really know what to look for (lethargy, boogers...he always took longer to stand up than the other calf). Now I know. The reason I think the vet messed up is, when the vet came out the second time, when the calf was clearly sick, I asked him if it could be pneumonia (in my cattle book it says that is the most common ailment for calves). He took the temperature and looked at his breathing rate - and said no, it was something else. He took a fecal sample and it came back with a high load of coccidia, so we treated him for that....but when the calf died a month later, I took him to the state run vet lab nearby, where they preformed a necropsy and told me it was pneumonia that killed him. And they said it could have been misdiagnosed because cattle can control their temperature if they're sick...like our calf was just hanging out in the shady part near the barn because he was already hot...at least that's how I understood it. But I suppose you're right that the parasite load was likely a contributing factor to his death.

I have the number of a different veterinarian I'll call in the future. Luckily there is a state run veterinary diagnostic lab not too far from where I live and does poop samples for $5, so I have been taking samples there a couple of times a year, for our sheep as well to determine if I should deworm.  Which brings me to another question: it seems like most old timers I've talked to around here routinely de-worm their cattle twice a year (spring and fall)...I've learned with sheep to not routinely deworm them, but only if they do have parasites (which I learn from the samples) because otherwise the parasites quickly grow resistant to the dewormers. So I've been treating our calf like that as well. He hasn't been dewormed since the fall. Do you think that's a good way to proceed, or should I go ahead and worm him more regularly? For what it's worth, I've heard that with multiple species grazing the same pasture, they actually cut down on the parasites, and that they're usually not easily transferred between species...and we have ample room for them all so far, plus I'm rotating them every couple of weeks. Though I could be wrong - it's been a year of a lot of research and some of it gets scrambled!



 
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William Bronson wrote:This is fascinating stuff!
I don't ever an on raising cattle but the logistics of it are interesting.
You mentioned two calves for $80.00 and that made me think, given the high cost of beef especially these days,  I wonder if buying them and immediately having them slaughtered would make economic sense?
Their carcass weight and the butchering fee would determine that answer, I suppose.



Calves that young would be mighty tender, but you wouldn't get much meat off them.  Most pro butchers would probably charge $40-100 for the kill, plus their minimum per animal charge, usually $60-100 around here.  Most butchers charge a certain amount per pound hanging, but have a minimum that corresponds to about the size of a big lamb, which a new calf would probably be approaching.

So even on the low end you're looking at least at $100 in processing (assuming no extra charges for burger or specialty cuts), and if it was $40 (I'm assuming the $80 was for the pair, rather than each) for the calf, and you got 30lbs of meat back, that's $4.67/lb.  Most likely you'd be looking a higher per pound cost, especially when you start adding in things like the loss from the dead calf.
 
Timothy Markus
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The more I look at it, the more I think that grafting calves onto a nurse cow is the way to go.
 
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The ones here are dewormed only when they are newborns. There a variety of breeds & plenty of pasture so that helps prevent any future worm problems. It also helps make really great composted earthwormy manure for the garden.

I think your best bargain compared to grocery store prices would be to buy them young in early spring & raise them until the your pasture will no longer support them through winter.

The best point to sell them for profit, around here, is 500lbs. That is for my friend's large Black Angus operation though. There's a lot of variables involved with that.
 
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Hi Samantha, Welcome to Permies!!

Something to consider is that most people who are doing cows for dairy end up with extra males, not just the big dairies. You might put up a notice at a local farm store or such well ahead of birthing that you want a couple, and see if anyone on a small operation is willing to let them nurse a few days before you take them. They are also less likely to be sick, the big dairies keep cows in horrible conditions.

I worked at a goat ranch, not huge, under 75 animals, and we had cull males that were sold cheap, I suspect cows work work the same. For them to keep all the culls and grow up to big enough to bother with butchering them was more than it was worth to the owners. That's the kind of place I'm thinking might be worth your time to find.
 
Lorinne Anderson
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My knowledge of cows is mostly anecdotal; I am extrapolating from other species and grafting to my meager bovine knowledge.

Coccidia would make sense, you are incredibly lucky it didn't spread, it is NOT species specific! And yes, that sort of infection could cause pneumonia to develop if the treatment was too late, ineffective or the calf got reinfected from it's own stool. Likely a vet recheck might have picked this up...

I don't know enough about sheep and cow parasites, but I would "think" the common stuff is very transmissible between the species - when I look at dewormers it often mentions dosing for a wide range of stock, so I would definitely look more closely at that.

My thought with the 4H route is they have kids  routinely get and raise single calves: perhaps there is a handbook or class or some such that would provide the "ABC's" for newbies. As they focus on developing good husbandry skills it could provide the best blueprint for your operation. It would likely geared to novices, so may be more helpful then most literature that is designed for those with experience.
 
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Greetings,
Although our systems and society may function differently I believe I may be able to give a quick run down of how I go about sourcing my Dairy X calves, what is economical for me, and what I look for in a calf. When I think about the rotating Beefies I carry to slaughter, my main goal is to keep costs down, and to grow a top quality product. I buy the calves direct from the farm at 95KG wean weight, this usually costs me 300NZD an animal, this cost includes a 7in1 vac shot, selenium/b12 booster, leptospirosis vac and a first round drench.

I don't know if things are different in USA, but worming in NZD is referred to as drenching. this also gets rid of other parasites such as scabies. in order to combat any resistance being formed by the parasite it is imperative to change the active chemical in your drench, this would usually follow a routine of a pour on, followed by an oral followed by a pour etc etc, this ensures the parasites that are not killed by the first drug are killed by the 2nd. We usually drench according to what feed the stock are going on to. but as a rule of thumb it is every 2 months if moving off and ontop crop or spring and late autumn if on a pasture exclusive diet.

I mainly use a Hereford X Friesian, I choose this mix for the hardiness and height of the friesian, and the quality and beef capacity of the hereford. Its important to note that not all cattle breeds are made the same! for example,
The Jersey breed has the benefits of having Black hooves (stronger than Friesians and less likely to suffer rot), High avg progeny( gets in calf easier than a Friesian) great milk fat to protein ratio, but suffers from lowered hardiness chronically, udder blowout and strep based throat infections, and lastly an increased metabolic risk on certain feeds and pastures. Each breed will have a grocery list of pros and cons, this is where you have to identify what will work within your system and stick to it. And contrary to popular belief, if I could find a Good Breeder I would take a pure Ayrshire over any X, hybrid vigour or not.

On the topic of Colostrum, I have never fed Colostrum past the 2nd day, the mother only produces true colostrum in the first 24 hours, this is due to the calf being born without a properly functioning immune system. every subsequent feed post that first 24 hours will have an increasingly reduced amount of functioning white cells within the milk and an increase in proteins, fats and calcium. What is MOST important for that calf past feeding colostrum is feeding roughage!! I used to feed straw to my calves straight away! it is important for the calves Rumen development to undergo a process called Rumen scratching, if the calf doesn't undergo this process the Rumen will not properly form and grow, this will give you problems down the line and decrease the overall hardiness of your animal. As the Milk bypasses the Rumen and is digested within the Abomesum ( a stomach that functions on acid like a humans) without any product moving through the calves rumen the calf will be at risk of scouring (diarrhoea) and losing precious nutrients.

I will leave a link to a slaughter chart I use to pick my dates, 2 years is a fine amount of time to wait, but I would definitely choose a date (summer is best) and plan to to give that animal as much quality feed leading up to slaughter to ensure you have good quality well finished Meat. one thing to also keep in mind is the enjoyment factor of rearing that animal, its not just meat at the end of the day, its 2 years of calculated effort leading to an income of highly nutritious Beef.

Sources : 6 Years Dairy Farm Experience

Slaughter Chart : https://www.grass-fed-solutions.com/beef-cattle-slaughter-weight.html

Pasture Based Info sheet on growth targets, with some discussion on drenching : https://beeflambnz.com/knowledge-hub/PDF/growing-cattle-fast-pasture#:~:text=In%20the%20fast%20growth%20path,at%2024%20months%20of%20age.
 
Timothy Markus
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Great post, Benjamin.  I've milked Ayrshires and I really liked them.  Easy to handle, calm and great milk.  They'd be top of the list for grass dairy for me.
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