Dairy producers have options for their bull or steer calves 

The current cattle market provides dairy producers with a variety of options when it comes to their bull calves. The demand for stocker and feedlot animals opens the door for dairy producers looking to market bull calves, steers, or dairy/beef crosses. 

Bull Calves versus Steers

Oklahoma State University Extension livestock marketing specialists track and analyze data from cattle coming through sale rings in the state. Their findings show from 2019 to 2023 there has been an increase in the number of intact bull calves being sold at feeder calf sales. 

Though weather events and cattle prices are factors, livestock extension specialists say there is another explanation for why some producers do not castrate their bull calves before selling them. “The biggest reason calves are coming in uncastrated is labor, just not having the families that we used to have where there is help at the farm. People can’t get farm labor to come out and do those types of jobs,” Brian Freking, area livestock specialist with Oklahoma State University Extension, said.

Though there may be an increase in uncastrated bull calves being sold, the market continues to pay less for uncastrated bull calves compared to castrated bull calves. According to recent analysis of data from the Oklahoma Quality Beef Network, buyers are discounting uncastrated bulls at a value of $11.25/cwt. For an animal that weighs 500 pounds that $56 a head discount.   

According to livestock extension specialists, research indicates there are several benefits to castrating bulls from the age of birth to 3 months. Some of the advantages of early castration include shorter initial weight loss periods, lower disease susceptibility and higher post-weaning average daily gains. When calves are castrated at younger ages at lighter weights the process is less stressful and minimizes the risk of harm to the calf and producer. 

Hold versus Sell

Determining the best time to sell bull calves or steers varies from operation to operation. Factors such as feed prices, available labor and market prices all drive the timing decisions for individual operations. 

However, retaining calves during a transition period that occurs directly after bottle feeding can produce long-term benefits. “If we think about that dairy calf, it has been given nutrition since day one. So, there is a learning curve for the dairy calf if we just kick them out in the pasture, they don’t quite know what to do,” Freking said. 

Many states offer programs to guide dairy producers transitioning calves from bottle to bunk. One of the goals of the Oklahoma Quality Beef Network is to assist producers in implementing a transition period to set calves up for future success. 

Livestock extension specialists recommend a roughly 45-day transition period. “We want to make sure that transition is as successful as it can be. It is not always going to be 100 percent but that is the intent of that program,” Freking said. Research indicates calves properly cared for in a transition period reap long-term health and performance benefits. 

Dairy – Beef Crosses

For years the dairy industry has increasingly produced dairy/beef cross calves. Now, the state of the cattle industry is spurring even more interest. “The advantage with the beef on dairy is really being driven a lot in spring of 2024 because of our low cow herd inventory on the beef side. We are at a historical low with the number of beef cows and there hasn’t been much of a blip in that market yet,” Reagan Bluel, Missouri Dairy Educational Director and dairy specialist with the University of Missouri Extension, said. 

The dairy/beef crosses are known in the industry for their consistency and uniformity. Additionally, some studies show a high percentage of the dairy/beef crosses grade at choice or greater. 


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