Dairy beef production with heifers and steers

Rearing dairy beef heifers and steers allows you to make use of low-quality pasture, and they are much easier to manage than bulls. Learn more about the options available for your dairy-bred cattle.

Back to: How to manage dairy beef production

If you are considering beef production with dairy heifers and steers, there are two production systems available.

You can either finish heifers and steers at:

  • 18–19 months old – if they were born in late-spring, summer or autumn
  • 21–24 months old – if they were born in spring

Explore the pros and cons of each of these systems, their performance targets and the secrets to success.

Finishing at 18–19 months old

The production system for finishing dairy beef at 18–19 months old differs, depending on whether the calves were born in the autumn, or in the late-spring or summer months. See the feeding guidance for both variations below.

Opting for finishing at 18–19 months old gives you more flexibility in terms of the feeds you can use. It also helps you to get the most out of low-cost pastures.

Steers and heifers are much easier to manage than bulls. However, rearing this type of beef system can be much slower than with bulls. The carcase grading can also have a poorer conformation than bulls.

See our advice on rearing dairy bulls for more details about this system of dairy beef production

Autumn-born heifers and steers

Calves born in the autumn and on an 18–19-month system are usually reared indoors over winter so they can reach approximately 200–230 kg at turnout in April.

During the summer, autumn-born calves should graze high-quality pasture, ideally on a rotational system. This is to help maintain their daily liveweight gains of one kg per day.

You should house them during the autumn and finish them on the following feed:

  • High-quality silages
  • Rolled cereals for a good energy source
  • Appropriate protein supplementation
  • Minerals if required

Late-spring or summer-born calves

Calves born in the late spring or summer months are unlikely to be old enough to make good use of grass in their first summer. But they may benefit from access to a paddock for loafing.

The heifers and steers on this system are usually housed over the winter and given free access to high-quality grass silage. Feed can be supplemented to enable them to meet their target growth rates.

Depending on the quality of pasture and condition of the steers, they may be able to finish while at grass. However, consider providing supplementary feed for adequate fat cover.

Example performance targets for 18–19 months

The table below outlines example performance targets for finishing heifers or steers at 18–19 months old.

Please note: you should check the minimum carcase weights for your chosen outlet.

Table 1. Example performance targets finishing at 18–19 months

Performance targets (kg)
Reared calf (3 months) 120
Liveweight at slaughter (18 months) 600–680
Carcase weight* 300–350
Carcase classification –O/O+3

* Check minimum carcase weights for the chosen outlet

Finishing heifers at 18–19 months

Heifers tend to deposit more of their liveweight gain as fat. It is important they are fed to grow sufficient frame size before they move to a finishing ration.

Research carried out by Teagasc in 2016 trialled a 19-month system, finishing dairy beef heifers off pasture from September to November.

Heifers were given 2.5 kg concentrate of dry matter supplementation each day, for 60 days pre-slaughter. Their target carcase weight was 235 kg. Results showed that this system was repeatable and achievable.

See the Teagasc report for more details about this research: Beef 2016 profitable technologies by Teagasc.

Finishing at 2 years old

Steers or heifers born in the springtime will usually need a second grazing season before slaughter at around two years of age, between 21 and 24 months old.

Finishing at around two years is a good way of utilising poorer-quality land and/or home-grown forages. It also gives you the opportunity to get the most out of low-cost growth from pasture.

However, with two winters needed, this beef rearing system will increase your feed and production costs. The slow throughput of cattle will also tie up your working capital for a longer time.

Even though utilising land and pastures makes the daily feed costs look cheap, the feed cost per kilogram gain can still be high.

Read more about budgeting for dairy beef production systems, including how to use partial budgets to calculate potential gains or losses

Feed for finishing at 2 years old

Finishing around two years old will normally require some supplementation during their first year at grass.

After this first year, housed rations are generally based around grass silage or other forages and a small amount of concentrates. During this time, the animals develop frame, with only a moderate growth rate of around 0.7 kg per day.

Depending on the availability of grass, supplementation isn’t usually needed during the second summer.

Cattle will be finished during their second winter inside. Regular monitoring of weight and condition is essential, particularly in the last few weeks so they are marketed at the correct level of fatness.

The level of concentrate required for finishing on this system will depend on the quality of forage. Around 75% of the total concentrates fed will be consumed during the finishing period. Fast growth rates during the finishing period will help optimise conformation classification.

Research into shortening the two-year system

There have been a few notable research projects looking into modifications to this two-winter system for finishing heifers and steers.

One research project by Teagasc found that spring-born, early-maturing breed, crossbred dairy heifers were fit to be slaughtered off pasture before their second winter. Research revealed that these animals were overfat for slaughter when they were finished indoors during their second winter.

Another study, by Harper Adams University, investigated the feasibility of growing and finishing Hereford cross and Holstein-Friesian steers. In this case, they were predominantly grazed on grass and fodder beet over the winter. The aim was to finish cattle by 22 months of age.

The system had minimal reliance on cereals or other bought-in concentrates and no housed period after initially rearing calves. Despite challenging weather conditions, this low-input dairy beef system is profitable.

Read more about the results of the Harper Adams study relating to finishing cattle during their second season at grass: Outdoor dairy beef.

Example performance targets for 21–24 month systems

See the table for example performance targets for finishing on the approximate two-year system.

These are example targets and should be used as a guide. For example, you must check the minimum carcase weights of the chosen outlet for the meat.

Table 2. Example performance targets for finishing at 21–24 months

Performance targets (kg)
Reared calf (3 months) 120
Liveweight at slaughter (18 months) 600–700
Carcase weight* 300–370
Carcase classification –O/O+3

*Check minimum carcase weights for the chosen outlet

Keys to success for a two-winter system

For this system of rearing steers and heifers, you should first consider the following:

  • Excellent grassland management, including rotational grazing, is key
  • The winter crop should be carefully set up and managed
  • You must take care when transitioning cattle between diets to reduce health issues
  • Discuss a health plan with your vet regarding vaccinations and parasite control

Useful links

Access the ‘Dairy beef production systems' manual, for further practical advice

If you would like to order a hard copy of the Dairy beef production systems manual, please contact publications@ahdb.org.uk or call 0247 799 0069.