How can a young farmer establish a feedlot operation without a huge capital investment? South Dakota farmer Troy Randall found his answer 13 years ago in Holstein steers. Now the Dell Rapids man fills his feedlot with 1,500 black and whites.

Feeding out Holstein steers may not be for everyone; for one thing, it's more labor-intensive than feeding colored cattle. On the flip side, Holstein steers are less costly to buy, Randall says.

“But you must be prepared for the different management style they require. I've heard of feedlots that brought in Holsteins, tried to manage them like other breeds, and their death loss was out of control,” he says.

Randall says Holstein steers tend to be more gentle, playful (which makes for more pen dust), and they like to follow. More easily “bored,” they'll resort to sorting their feed, which can lead to metabolic problems. Holsteins are tolerant of heat but intolerant of cold. They have a higher risk for liver abscesses and acidosis but seldom founder. They also drink more water than other breeds, which means pens will be muddier. “And it takes 14-15 months to fatten them,” Randall says.

But despite all that, Randall believed the breed would fit his operation because he raises all his own corn.

“When I finished college, I wasn't in a position to buy more land. I wanted to feed cattle because I didn't like hauling all the corn we raised to the elevator and watching it go out of state to feedlots. I thought there had to be a way for us to use that corn and add value to our farming operation.”

Randall, whose late father Ron was farming with him at the time, recalls corn was cheap and feeder cattle “sky high” as he explored ways to establish his own feedlot. That's what led him to Holsteins, which were plentiful and cheap at the time.

“At first, I bought unweaned calves from about 30 different dairies,” he says. “We spent a lot of time feeding milk when we brought them in.”

Buying 250 feeder calves every 6-8 weeks, and from so many small dairies (60 cows or less), Randall says he soon discovered that health issues from each of those dairies came with the calves.

“We had some struggles keeping everything healthy,” he reports, but he began locating larger dairies. That allowed him to purchase calves from just a dozen different farms, thus reducing his health issues.

“Most of our calves are from Georgia now,” he says. “They're weaned by the time we get them so they go right on feed when they come in.”

The first three or four years, Randall used a combination of self feeders and low roughage to finish the cattle. A nutritionist now develops a total mixed ration (TMR) fed from a feed wagon.

“That was always our goal. It just took a few years to get there,” he says.

Randall says the major adjustment for his Georgia Holsteins is South Dakota winters. Utilizing hoop barns for shelter for the first 5-7 weeks has been a big help, he says.

“It was an inexpensive way to provide shelter for the calves. On a 20°F day, with the barn full of calves and the sun shining through the roof, temps inside get up to 40°F pretty easily,” he says.

Weather conditions, rate of gain and the number of steers currently in the open feedlot all factor into when the new calves move into the open feedlot with the older steers.

“The west end of the feedlot has quite a bit of protection with a shelterbelt just north of it,” Randall says. “That's where new calves go. Older steers are on the east side of the lot.”

A series of gates creates paddocks for grouping by age. The arrangement allows Randall to monitor cattle daily and feed by growth stage.

“The calves start out on a whole-grain pellet and some wild hay,” he says. “At this point, we use self feeders and hand feed the calves in the hoop barns every day. We're looking at an automated system, but haven't decided anything yet.”

Once calves move into the feedlot, they receive a low-fat, mega-calorie TMR.

“The earlier we start them on that TMR, the better they do,” Randall says. “We feed our own corn and use distillers grains; we have three ethanol plants within 40 miles of the farm.”

Randall admits that if a producer had to purchase feed to fatten young Holsteins, the economics likely wouldn't work. But Randall says he's working to shorten the feeding period, already bringing it down from 16 months to 14-15 months.

The Randalls sell their Holsteins in nearby Sioux Falls at 1,425-1,450 lbs. And while the public perception is that Holstein beef doesn't compare to that of beef breeds, Randall disagrees.

“If you feed and fatten the Holstein right, you have good-quality beef. You may like it better than traditional beef,” he says.

Loretta Sorensen is a freelance writer based in Yankton, SD.