That sea of Holstein calves in California's Imperial Valley is destined to be what's for dinner. With nearly a half-million head of Holsteins on feed at any one time, the region (including Arizona's Salt River Valley) has become an intriguing and integral sector of the nation's beef supply system.

“Please, don't make the mistake of calling them dairy calves,” warns Patrick Hutchinson, a Brawley, CA, cattle production consultant. “The cattle that come out of these feedlots produce some of the best table beef you'll find anywhere in the world.”

Within a short hop of Hutchinson's backyard lie seven cooperatively connected feeding operations that produce the lion's share of the region's fed calves. And, it's a bit ironic that a region that claims to be the 1940s birthplace of large-scale commercial cattle feeding has fine-tuned the science of feeding, processing and merchandising of Holstein beef.

Hutchinson says the advantages of raising beef in the Imperial Valley are the same as in the 1940s — a mild climate with an adequate supply of land and water, and proximity to a large, growing consumer base.

And, with California being the nation's largest dairy state, there's a consistent supply of baby steer calves. California alone places 600,000 Holstein steers in feedlots annually. There are about 4 million Holstein steers born in the U.S. each year.

Misunderstood and maligned

Despite accounting for 10% of the nation's calf crop, Holsteins as beef cattle have been largely misunderstood, underrated and often maligned. The breed suffered an especially bad rap after BSE was discovered in a Holstein cow on a Washington state dairy farm in December 2003. That image is perpetuated by the infamous video showing a Holstein cow stumbling around an auction ring in England — a video that's widely used by television media to depict an animal with “mad cow disease.”

But beyond BSE, Holsteins have long suffered from perceptions of producing poor-quality beef, says Kenneth Burdine, Extension associate, Department of Agricultural Economics, University of Kentucky. He's recently completed a detailed study looking at the economics of converting Holsteins to table beef.

The Holstein beef market is seen by many industry insiders and outsiders primarily as a ground-beef market similar to that of cull cows, Burdine says. This perception may stem from the fact many plants slaughtering Holstein steers also slaughter cull cows.

“However, in those cases, the meat is separated and sold in different market channels,” Burdine explains.

Also, he says processors have relied a great deal on Holstein trimmings to upgrade trimmings from cull cows — a practice occurring less frequently as value is added to cuts that previously were destined for trimmings.

Adding to the bias is that Holstein steers traditionally were backgrounded to weights of 800-1,000 lbs. before going on full feed. The result was extremely heavy carcasses and cuts that didn't fit industry standards.

“Cuts of meat from these carcasses were simply too large for many retail and foodservice markets,” Burdine says.

For example, in order to keep portion size at industry-standard levels, steaks had to be sliced extremely thin, which created preparation and presentation difficulties.

On an energy accelerator

Innovations in feeding management are changing the quality perceptions associated with beef from Holstein steers. What's evolved is what Burdine calls the West Coast “calf-fed model.”

At Meloland Cattle Co., located just south of El Centro, CA, Bill Brandenberg — like other Imperial Valley feeders — seems to have the calf-fed model down to a science. The focus is to eliminate the backgrounding stage completely.

When Brandenberg receives 275-lb. Holstein steer calves into his feedyard, the objective for the next 330 days is gain, not growth.

“The last thing we want them to do is frame-up,” Brandenberg says. “We want them to be on a high-energy finishing ration throughout the feeding period.”

Using this concept, Brandenberg manages his calves to yield a 740-lb. carcass — with up to 70% of them grading Choice.

“Actually, we can feed for more Choice than that, if we want,” he says. “But, realistically, from both management and marketing standpoints, 55% to 70% Choice is adequate.”

He grants that, in general, Holstein carcasses are less muscular with a lower muscle-to-bone ratio with smaller ribeye areas. They also tend to have slightly different muscle shapes. Long-term USDA data though, show Holstein carcasses yield only 4.6% less boneless sub-primal meat compared with their “native” counterparts.

The beauty in Holsteins

The beauty in feeding Holsteins is the breed's tight genetic pool, which leads to better consistency in feedlot performance and end-product characteristics, says Paul Cameron, Mesquite Cattle Co, Brawley, CA.

Like Brandenberg, from the time he receives his calves from the region's “calf raisers,” Cameron is able to manage his calves for a relatively predictable outcome — more so, he says, than with native or crossbred calves.

“But while Holsteins may be predictable to a point, it all begins with a healthy, day-old calf; a top-notch calf-raiser and sound feeding practices,” he says. “Genetically flawed calves or a marginal animal from a calf-raiser can be a recipe for disaster.”

Feeding regimes vary somewhat among the Imperial Valley cattlemen, but most utilize an implant program. A common ingredient in gain management is the use of Encore® (estradiaol) “controlled release” growth implants. This product provides a dose of estradiol for up to 400 days.

The Imperial Valley feeders routinely supplement with vitamin E to help enhance retail product shelf life. They also feed Optaflexx® (ractopamine chloride) — an increasingly important part of increasing red meat yields.

Both Cameron and Brandenberg say they get about a double-their-money payback by using Optaflexx.

The biggest variable in feeding Holsteins is economics, they say, particularly the price of corn.

“We're very dependent on Midwest corn,” Brandenberg says. “Because we have to own these cattle so far out in time, we get nervous whenever it looks like the price of corn might increase.” Like what's happening with today's increased fuel and transportation costs.

Burdine agrees the Holstein calf-fed model is very sensitive to traditional market factors like corn prices.

“The nature of the business is that calf-feds are on feed for a longer period of time and more corn is needed to finish them,” he says, “This tends to amplify the effects of changes in the markets.”

Brawley-area beef producers have all the ingredients to be long-run and significant players in the nation's beef business, Hutchinson concludes.

“Other cattlemen from around the country, along with a whole lot of industry observers, are starting to take these guys and what they're doing very seriously,” Burdine says. “Holsteins, like it or not, are only going to become more integral to high-quality beef production in this country.”

Feeder Notes

New Cargill supplement

Cargill Animal Nutrition (CAN) research has developed a new technology it says will revolutionize feedlot supplements. ROC, a patent-pending technology, makes it possible to provide very high mineral supplements in pelleted form to commercial feedlots.

“ROC eliminates the need for carrier ingredients required in traditional dry and liquid supplements, and corrects product consistency and handling problems prevalent with loose meals,” says consulting nutritionist Clint Calk, Amarillo, TX. “In many cases, lower value carriers like wheat mids in dry supplements, and water or molasses in liquid supplements, can be eliminated from the supplement package.”

ROC saves feedlots from paying supplement prices for low-value carriers. And, because ROC has no carrier, supplement inclusion rates can be reduced by 50-70%, allowing feedlots to replace supplement in their rations with higher energy ingredients. This results in higher energy diets and potentially higher animal performance. Lower inclusion rates also allow the feedlot to reduce its inventory levels and total purchases of supplement.

“ROC is a natural fit for rations that don't need supplemental natural protein, such as rations containing high-protein by-products,” Calk explains. “However, ROC is not for everyone. Our consultants, utilizing the MAX® System for Beef, can evaluate if a customer's feeding program is right for ROC.”

For more information, call the ROC hotline at 866/424-1224.

Discounting light barley

University of Idaho research indicates there's not always a consistent relationship between barley test weight (bulk density) and beef cattle performance. Generally, it's been reported that while daily gains may not be reduced, feed conversions are poorer with light test weight barley compared to heavier test weight barley.

As the barley's test weight increased, daily gains and feed conversions improved. When the net energy for growth (NEg) values were calculated for the different barleys based on cattle performance, the heavy barley (51 lbs./bu.) was worth $15.70 more/ton than the lightest barley (42 lbs./bu).

However, it was found that on an 85% barley-based ration, there was no effect on daily gain, but feed conversions were poorer for the lightest barley (5.80) compared to the heaviest barley (5.26).

These studies show feed efficiency was the poorest for the lightest test weight barley. Based on these two experiments' results, the question becomes: “How much would you discount light test weight barley?”

The answer: Discount light test weight barley by 1% of the value for every pound less than 47 lbs. bushel weight. For example, by value, 44-lb. barley would be discounted 3%.

For more information, contact John Paterson, Montana State University Extension beef specialist, 406/994-5562 or e-mail johnp@montana.edu.