Raising Dairy Beef Steers in New Hampshire

A summary of a UNH Extension Project

black and white cow standing in a pasture

The aim of the study was to evaluate whether raising dairy steers is viable under different economic conditions, feeding methods, and marketing strategies to determine which program generates the greatest profit. In addition, this research would increase demand and future development of the local agriculture infrastructure in the county such as – feed, equipment dealers, and veterinary services.

The project was conducted on dairy farms in Northern New Hampshire. The goal of this research was to provide additional income for dairy farms and cattle producers, and to give an opportunity to small scale producers or producers interested in raising dairy beef, but who do not have large amounts of land to support forage production. The project has been funded by Tillotson Charitable Foundation.

Two diets were evaluated: forage and shelled corn mixed with a protein supplement. Three dairy farms were included in the project. Forty steers were placed on each of the three farms, twenty steers in two sub groups of ten were placed on the shelled corn diet and twenty steers in two sub groups of ten were placed on the forage diet.

The steers were supplied by one of the project farms for uniformity, availability, and biosecurity reasons.  The bull calves were raised on each farm per the farm’s regular regimen. From birth to weaning time, all steers were fed and treated in the same manner as dairy heifers.

The corn diet or test group steers were transitioned to the corn diet at 56 days of age. During the next three months, or when reaching a body weight of 350 lbs., the diet consisted of three parts of shelled corn and one part Kent Precision Dairy Beef Grower protein supplement. The next feeding phase, from 350 lbs. of body weight up to market weight (approximately 9 to 10 months), consisted of a mix of 12 1/3 parts of shelled corn to one part of for Kent Precision Dairy Beef Finisher protein supplement. Steers reaching a body weight of 1,150 lbs. were considered to be marketed. The whole shelled corn and protein supplement were supplied by local grain companies.

The forage diet or control group steers were transitioned to forage diets at 56 days of age and fed by a forage ration per the operation resources. These steers were on the forage diet for the next twenty months or upon reaching a market weight of 1,400 lbs.

During the program, all steers were vaccinated initially after birth, but steers on the corn diet were vaccinated every three months for clostridium perfringens. The steers were weighed every month to monitor growth progress. The average daily gain for all steers on the corn diet peaked at 3-3.5 lbs/day, but varied from 2 to 5 lbs/day.

Overall, the corn diet steers exhibited more uniform growth than the forage diet steers. The growth pattern indicates that the corn diet steers rate of growth slows down around 13-14 month of age considerably. Depending on the beef market prices and cost of the inputs, a manager may have to decide whether it would be beneficial to keep the steers over the age of 14 months.

On average, the corn fed steers reach market body weight of 1,150 lbs. in 390-392 days with differences among all steers from 25 to 29 days. These results indicate that some of the steers reached desired market weight at one year of age or slightly less.

But it took an additional 40 days to market these steers, an average of 432-438 days for all steers. The difference of 40 days suggests that the earliest marketed steers were 13 months old and the oldest were reaching 15-16 months of age and well over 1,300 lbs. live weight. The differences in time of marketing reflects the availability of the processing plants.

On the other hand, it took 612–672 days to market the forage diet steers. The difference between marketing forage diet steers of 13–21 days is a half of the difference in corn diet steers indicating that these steers were sold in groups to whole sale markets as opposed to on an individual basis to local processors.

Feed and labor costs were the two major items of difference between the two diet groups. Prices for bull calves, milk, milk replacer, calf starter, veterinary services, and labor spent raising the bull calves were relatively uniform throughout the farms.

The feed cost for the corn diet steers (which includes whole shelled corn, grower and finisher protein supplements) comprised 55–58 percent of total operating costs. During this project, the corn prices varied between $180 and $250/ton. Producers, who were able to purchase bulk shelled corn benefited from volume price discounts tremendously, which also reflected the overall production costs. For the forage diet steers, forages represented 59-63 percent of the operating costs.

Labor costs for the corn diet steers were almost five times lower than for the forage fed steers group - $39 vs. $180/steer. It is imperative to note that these costs were not only lower, but also about eight months shorter which impacted the overall costs of raising these beef steers.

Marketing the steers were per farms options. Some of the steers were marketed through wholesale channels, some of them through local processing plants, or directly to customers.

The whole sale marketed steers were also graded, receiving Choice Yield Grade 2 and 3, or Prime Yield Grade 2. Dress weights ranged from 656 to 770 lbs. (56 percent carcass yield). Prices per pound of hanging weight marked larger differences, from $1.47 up to $2.65, which reflects timing of marketing and different marketing channels. At the beginning of the marketing period, the price was $1.96/lb. hanging weight on the wholesale level. However, the market turned downward considerably over time. Direct to customers marketing yielded the highest price per pound of hanging weight.

Overall, the producers broke even or made a small profit with the corn diet steers and had a significant losses of several hundred dollars per head with the forage diet steers. That being said, it is necessary to note that there are some opportunities to improve potential income for the corn diet steers. When this project started, calf prices were historically high. A bull calf over 90 lbs. birth weight fetched $4/lb. live weight. Later in the year, bull calves over 85 lbs. live weight also fetched almost $4/lb. live weight. The overall cost to purchase the bull calves for this project was $240/bull calf.

Prices of whole shelled corn were similar. Producers who have the option of storing shelled corn in bulk, ie. 12 ton at a time, would probably never see $220 - $240/ton. It took somewhere between 2.6 and 2.9 tons of whole shelled corn to raise a steer.

For this project, all work with the calves was performed by a local veterinarian who was commuting to these farms from the neighboring county. Veterinary costs were quite uniform across the farms, around $30/steer. It is expected that these costs could be smaller on a regular dairy operation as many calf care treatments would be done either by the manager or the employees.

Check the UNH Extension website soon for a full report with detailed numbers.