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Holstein steers aren’t average beef

Holstein steers are no longer fed as a sideline for the beef market in Western Canada. With the advent of rising feeder and corresponding fat prices for all beef animals in the last few years, the interest of raising Holstein steers has taken onto full-scale proportions by many cattle feeders.

These people have pencilled out a favourable opportunity of taking weaned Holstein calves and putting them through vigorous grower and finisher feeding programs until slaughter. They also know that feeding Holstein steers has its own unique set of rules and challenges, but when overcome, lead to incoming revenue and profits.

Aside from four hooves, many cattle feeders say feeding a Holstein steer is really feeding a different animal compared to a more traditional beef-breed steer.

Holstein steers are large, tall and lean animals, which have thin hides, short hair coats and carry less external back fat. While this makes for an animal less adaptable to our cold weather, it doesn’t stop them from consuming about 10-12 per cent more feed (dry matter basis) and achieving favourable average daily gains. When they are finished in a feedlot, Holstein steers are usually marketed at about 15 months of age and have large mature body weights of about 1,300 to 1,400 lbs.

It’s these basic fenceline impressions that are augmented by realistic carcass data, which has been collected on finished Holstein feeders. At comparable weights, Holstein steers have less external back fat, less muscling and greater bone-to-muscle ratios compared to beef-type breeds. They tend to have lower yields of desired boneless cuts, yet what lean muscle that is laid down tends to be well marbled. Trim pieces removed from dairy carcasses also yield leaner cut-outs.

Overall, Holstein steers have dressing percentages at the packers that are generally six to eight per cent lower compared to beef breeds.


Such “meat and bone” differences exhibited by dairy steers are attributed to a high energy requirement in the first place and the subsequent pathway in which this dietary energy is metabolized. It has been demonstrated by university and extension field work that Holstein steers require about 10 per cent more energy for maintenance of larger body frames and up-keep of vital functions.

They also showed that growing dairy steers use dietary energy more efficiently for laying down protein tissue and are less efficient in fat accumulation compared to most beef cattle.

This means feeding programs should be designed for Holstein steers that puts them on a higher plane of nutrition compared to those for conventional beef cattle in order to maximize feedlot performance. The most successful Holstein feeder programs are usually broken down into a two-phase feeding series; (1) a grower phase, which targets a 2.5- to 3.0-lb. average daily gain for 350 to 700 lb. Holstein steers and (2) a finisher phase that targets a 2.8- to 3.2-lb. average daily gain for 700- to 1,200-lb. (to market) Holstein steers.

The respective initial grower diet should contain a substantial amount of nutritious forages (30 to 50 per cent) supplemented with grain concentrates that supplies a modest amount of dietary energy (50 to 55 Mcal NEg/cwt, DM); given some allowance for young Holstein calves that need to grow in frame size. The second phase diet should contain much less forage, which makes it largely made up of high-energy grain (80 to 85 per cent) that supplies high dietary energy (62 to 68 Mcal NEg/cwt, DM). This high-energy diet maximizes good Holstein finisher gains and conserves the number of days needed to reach an economic marketable weight of 1,200 to 1,400 lbs.


Despite the focus upon the high-energy diets to drive Holstein good performance, it is also important to ensure that other essential nutrient levels are met. By the time they enter the feedlot, young animals should get a ration with about a 13 to 14 per cent protein level and then a finisher diet of about 11 to 12 per cent protein.

Calcium levels of 0.6 to 0.7 per cent are respectively recommended with a half a bag of extra limestone often added to the mixer wagon toward the end of the finisher phase. Most of the time, we do not worry about adding phosphorus to both grower and finisher diets, because increasing grain levels tend to supply enough of this macro-mineral.

In contrast, both Holstein grower and finisher diets must contain a strong trace-mineral pack (copper, zinc, manganese, iodine, cobalt and selenium) and vitamins A, D, and E. These essential trace minerals and vitamins not only are vital to good maintenance and growth of these animals, but also play a vital role in immune function, which helps Holsteins fight disease and remain healthy. An ionophore such as monensin sodium should be added to the diets at a 22 g or 33 g levels to help improve feed efficiency and prevent coccidiosis.

Here is an illustration of sample diets of a grower and finisher diets for Holstein steers marketed at 1,400 lbs.; coming into the feedlot as 500 lbs. calves and gaining 2.8 lbs./head/day on the grower diet and 3.2 lbs./head/day on the finisher diet.

These are suggested diets only. Their actual formulation will also be based on individual factors such as weight and health status of incoming Holstein cattle, degree of segregation, desired performance and existing farm facilities and labour resources. Furthermore, the basic cost of the above rations will vary too; calculated at $2.15/head/day for the grower and $2.71/head/day for the finisher diets (i.e.: corn silage at $67/tonne and $6/bu. for barley).

About the author


Peter Vitti is an independent livestock nutritionist and consultant based in Winnipeg. To reach him call 204-254-7497 or by email at [email protected]



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