How to choose a dairy beef rearing system

Considering rearing dairy cattle for beef production? Explore how to choose a dairy beef rearing system that works for your farm, together with the pros and cons of each system.    

Back to: How to manage dairy beef production

When considering dairy beef production, you need to decide what type and age of cattle to rear for finishing.

The dairy beef rearing system you decide to use should be based on your target market, customer and what resources are available to you at the farm.

Read on to find out more about each of these systems and answer the key seven questions to decide which system is right for you.

General advice on choosing a dairy beef system

It is important to decide on a clearly defined system before purchasing any calves. Knowing the system will help you identify and monitor the animal’s key performance targets and prepare for managing the animals effectively through to finishing.

Production systems for dairy male calves range from specialist veal and young beef systems to extensive, forage-based systems.

Entire males can be finished relatively quickly and should be slaughtered before they are 16 months of age to ensure meat-eating quality.

Alternatively, steers and heifers can be grown more slowly, finishing between 18 and 24 months of age.

The table below provides an overview of the different dairy beef systems available, and the target growth rates, slaughter ages and carcase weights.

Use this table as a guide only – if you are entering into a contract for selling beef, there will be strict criteria for slaughter age and maximum carcase weight, which may differ from the ranges in the table.

Example targets for dairy-bred beef systems

Take a look at these systems in more detail to help decide whether they would work on your farm:

System Rosé veal Veal Continental X dairy bulls Pure dairy bulls Holstein/ native* X dairy steer/ heifer semiextensive
Growth rate (kg/d) 1.2–1.4 1.0–1.2 >1.4 >1.3 >0.8
Slaughter age (months) 6–8 10 13–14 13–14 18–24
Carcase weight (kg) 130–215 220 330–350 270–320 235–340

Veal production from dairy beef

Veal is legally defined as the meat from cattle aged less than eight months old at slaughter.

There are two types of veal: it can either be rosé veal (always RSPCA labelled) or white veal. White veal only makes up 5% of the UK market and is more popular on the continent.

Before setting up a veal production system, you should secure a market outlet and work out the likely costs of production.

For example, when the market price for beef is high, you may get a greater financial return by keeping animals longer and finishing them heavier.

Always try to find a market for the whole carcase, not just the premium cuts. 

Read more on producing veal, including nutritional calf-feeding guidance to improve your returns

Deciding between bulls and steers

There are pros and cons for both rearing bulls and steers.

Bulls tend to have superior feed conversion efficiency compared with castrated animals, due to the testosterone in their bodies. They also produce leaner carcases with a higher yield of edible meat in a shorter time than steers.

However, producing bull beef is a specialist enterprise and requires higher fixed and variable inputs.

Steer production can be more flexible and easier to manage and allows you to utilise more land for grazing. 

The meat from bulls and steers has a poorer conformation. We recommend a finishing period with a fast rate of gain. This will help ensure the target fat classification is met, as well as the conformation classification.  

Learn more about where to handle live animals to assess conformation

How to select dairy beef cattle for slaughter

Work in Northern Ireland has shown that Holstein steers consume 9% more feed than other beef-cross dairy breeds and have higher feed costs per kilogram of carcase gain. However, due to their lower calf price, they can produce a similar margin over feed to beef-cross Holstein steers.

More about managing steers for dairy beef production is available below. 

Read more information about the different production systems for bulls

High-quality grassland? Consider steers or heifers

If you have high quality grassland for grazing and you’re producing silage, a dairy beef production system for steers or heifers may be best, finishing them between 18 and 24 months old.

When choosing this dairy beef rearing system, you must maintain high-quality swards – aim for 10–12 cm at turnout. Rotational grazing should be used to utilise each of your fields and maintain the quality.

See our guide on rotational grazing systems for cattle for more information

When finishing steers or heifers at grass on an ad-lib ration, choose dry land to avoid poaching and to ensure there is a dry lying area.

You should consistently produce high-quality silage to keep concentrate costs down – aim for 11.5 metabolic energy and 16% crude protein.

Read more advice on managing heifers and steers, and the different systems available

How to choose the right system for your farm

When deciding which dairy beef rearing system to use, answering the following questions will help you choose the best one for your farm:

Question 1: What does the customer want and when?

Consider what your customer wants and when the product is required. For example, some customers will refuse to buy any bulls.

See our advice on planning and marketing beef for more details

Question 2: What housing is available?

Consider the housing available for the dairy beef production system and the state of it.

For example, is it strong and secure enough for a group of bulls? There should be a maximum of 20 bulls per pen. Bulls must be bedded up and fed from outside the pen to keep staff safe.

Any new livestock building must be designed specifically for livestock. General-purpose buildings often have an insufficient ridge opening to encourage good ventilation.

Consider whether there is enough room for groups of bulls to grow together without the need for mixing.  

See our guide to beef housing for more advice on building design and ventilation

Question 3: What is the availability and cost of straw?

When calculating how much straw you need for bedding, also consider the amount needed for feed.

It is important your buildings have sufficient drainage and ventilation for straw to be efficiently used.

Also, different classes and ages of stock require different amounts of straw. The table below shows the guidelines for bedding straw requirements for calves, yearlings and heavy store or finishing cattle. 

Table 1. Guidelines for bedding straw requirements

Cattle type Amount (tonnes)*
Calf rearing to 3 months 0.2
Yearlings (300–400 kg) 0.5–0.7
Heavy store/finishing cattle (450–650 kg) 0.7–1.0

If you need to buy in a proportion of your straw, consider how price fluctuations could affect your business. Over the last five years, straw prices have fluctuated from £30 per tonne to £100 per tonne.

Keep up to date with weekly hay and straw prices in Great Britain

Question 4: Can slurry and manure be dealt with?

Consider how much slurry and manure will be produced from your beef rearing system and assess whether you can store or deal with it appropriately.

Learn how to work this out using AHDB’s slurry guidance

Question 5: What home-grown feeds and forages are available?

Consider whether home-grown feeds and forages are available to feed your dairy-bred beef and the quality of them.

Find out about nutritional requirements for dairy beef cattle at each phase of production

Download the Growing and finishing cattle manual: nutritional guidance for dairy beef

Question 6: What is the availability and cost of bought-in feeds?

Consider the availability and cost of bought-in feeds to help you decide. Compare all possibilities on a cost per unit of energy and protein in the dry matter basis.

Use our beef ration calculator to choose from a list of over 65 different feeds and enter the cost (£ per tonne) of those feeds.

Beef ration calculator

Question 7: Do you have a system for handling the cattle?

It is important that you have an appropriate system for handling cattle in your chosen rearing system.  

Things to consider when improving or investing in a new handling system:

  • Assess your requirements for loading and unloading cattle
  • Types of cattle to be handled – sex, size, age, weight and temperament
  • Number of cattle to be handled at any one time
  • Assess the handling system from field, yard and housing
  • How many people will work the system
  • Cleaning and maintenance requirements
  • If indoors, consider lighting and ventilation
  • If outdoors, consider the impact of prevailing winds and the position of the sun

Read more about handling and assessing cattle for slaughter

Useful links

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

Download the Growing and finishing cattle manual: nutritional guidance for dairy beef

If you would like to order a hard copy of the Dairy beef production systems or Growing and finishing cattle manual, please contact or call 0247 799 0069.