Highlights: What You Need to Know About Profitably Marketing Your Bull Calves

  • Depending on size and condition, where and how a bull calf is marketed can have a profound effect on the price a dairyman receives. Currently a newborn Holstein bull calf sold for eventual slaughter as an adult steer may bring several hundred dollars, while a bull calf sold through other channels may bring less than $10 or may not be marketable at all.
  •  Difficult delivery is the most common cause of stillborn, weak and less-marketable newborn calves. On some farms employee training related to calving and neonatal care has resulted in up to a 50% increase in survivability for both bull calves and the dairy’s replacement heifers.
  •  Besides employee training on proper calving techniques, other practices that add value to bull calves include timely navel and colostrum management as well as adequate warming, hydration and feeding to ensure calf strength.
  •  If violative tissue residues are detected in a bull calf, the carcass will be condemned. The most common cause for the occurrence of violative tissue in calves is use of medicated milk replacer. It is essential that bull calves marketed off the dairy not receive medicated milk replacer.
  •  A sometimes overlooked precaution related to bull calf marketing is establishing an adequate record keeping and receipt system with the calf buyer or hauler. This helps insure the producer is paid for all bull calves that are transported off the dairy and that the producer knows which calves went to calf ranches. A bull calf ear-tag system used on some dairies helps protect the producer if claims are made that the calf received medication prior to slaughter.

Background on Marketing of Dairy Bull Calves

There are approximately 4 million dairy bull calves born in the United States every year, representing about 10% of the total U.S. calf crop. Approximately two-thirds to three-fourths of these bull calves will enter the beef market as finished steers with the remainder entering the calf slaughter programs. With quality similar to beef breeds and advantages in traceability and consistency, the market for finished Holstein steers is driven by many of the same market forces as those driving other breeds.

Particularly in the Midwest, bull calves may be sold to veal raising operations where they will be fed a milk replacer diet to 16 to 18 weeks and marketed as “special-fed” or “formula-fed” veal. With no commercial formula fed veal operations in California, this marketing path isn’t utilized for dairy bull calves in California.

For calves not purchased by either calf ranches or (in the Midwest) veal operations, the only common remaining market path is directly to calf slaughter programs.  It is both a more efficient use of resources and far more profitable for calves to be marketed to calf ranches where they are grown to adulthood.

Bull Calf Marketing Channel

Economic Aspects of Marketing Bull Calves

How a calf is marketed can have a profound effect on the price a dairyman receives. Recently in California’s Central Valley healthy, good-size newborn Holstein calves have commanded a price of approximately $300 to $400. Conversely, small or sickly calves not going to calf ranches frequently bring less than $10.

Producers interested in receiving top price for their bull calves will seek to ensure that their calves routinely go to calf ranches rather than other markets. Understanding calf ranch preferences can assist dairy producers in achieving that goal.   Calf buyers, calf ranches and veal raisers are understandably interested in healthy, robust calves that will perform well first on milk replacer and then later on solid feed as they mature into adulthood. Cornell University Extension has produced an excellent fact sheet describing simple steps to increase profits for bull calves. Ideal calf-ranch candidates will be good sized (92 to 120 pounds), dry, able to walk unassisted, with a dipped and dried navel and no evidence of respiratory or GI disease.

Calf Care & Added Value for Dairy Bull Calves

The factor most associated with a stillborn or weak, less-marketable calf is dystocia, meaning a difficult delivery. More than 90% of calves that are born dead are actually alive at the beginning of the calving process but die during delivery.  Careful close-up pen monitoring, timely intervention and quality neonatal care may (on some farms) increase survivability by 50%.

Colorado State University has developed a comprehensive on-line curriculum on calving and calf care for dairy employees. This on-line reference focuses on preventing dystocia, indications for and performing calving assistance, calf resuscitation and warming, navel care and colostrum management. All these aspects of calf care can improve not only heifer calf survivability but bull calf marketability as well. In order to make a calf attractive to a calf raiser, it is essential that the calf receive adequate warming, hydration and feed to ensure that it is strong enough to can walk unassisted.

An example employee checklist for Calving and Calf Neonatal Care is available at CDQAP’s animal care webpage.

Preventing Residues in Dairy Bull Calves

If violative tissue residues are detected in a bull calf the carcass will be condemned. For more information on how to prevent medication residues in milk and  beef visit CDQAP’s webpage on residue avoidance. Included at this website are links to videos, employee training materials and “Eight Common Causes of Residues”.

Drug Withdrawal Times in Pre-ruminant Calves

If bull calves are to be treated with medication on the dairy, adequate animal identification and record keeping systems need to be in place.  It is essential that calves are will or might be entering the human food chain not be marketed until their withdrawal time is completed.  Label withdrawal times established for cattle are often not applicable to pre-ruminant calves, animals whose drug metabolism has not matured. In fact, there are only about half a dozen drugs which are approved for use in pre-ruminant calves.  For this reason the determination of withdrawal times for calves should be made with the dairy’s veterinarian.

Drugs in non-ruminant calves

Medicated Milk Replacers and Neomycin

In a recent review of USDA’s residue data spanning 2011 to 2014, more than half of violative tissue residues identified in direct-slaughter calves were neomycin, a finding which can be attributed to the use of medicated milk replacer. Because there is no withdrawal time established for neomycin in pre-ruminating calves, the detection of any neomycin residues (no matter how small) represents an illegal residue. Preventing bull calves from receiving medicated milk replacer is the single most important management practice which will reduce the number of violative tissue residues in calves.

Neomycin Pie Chart

Colostrum From Dry-Treated Cows

Although far less common, residues have been associated with ingestion of colostrum still containing antibiotic from dry cow treatment. Because bull calf management should include colostrum administration, producers may wish to use colostrum from heifers that have not been dry-treated for bull calves. Alternatively producers can consult with their herd veterinarian for withdrawal times for use in calves that have consumed the colostrum from dry-treated cows. While most dry-cow tubes do not have established withdrawal times for young calves, at least one, Spectramast®DC has no pre-slaughter withdrawal period required for neonatal calves born from dry-treated cows, regardless of colostrum consumption.

The Three Pillars of Profitable Bull Calf Marketing

At the invitation of the CDQAP, observers and experts in the bull calf marketing and regulatory communities convened a roundtable to discuss and summarize the most important aspects of marketing dairy bull calves.

Three Pillars of Bull Calf Marketing

Pillar #1: Written Bull Calf Care SOP– Working with your dairy’s veterinarian to develop a Standard Operating Procedure is an ideal way to start down the path of increased bull calf profitability. Central to bull calf management is that calves receive adequate warming, hydration, colostrum and milk to ensure that it is strong enough to walk unassisted. Because (once out of your control) a bull calf may be diverted to calf slaughter programs, it is essential that newborn calves sold off farm receive neither drug treatments nor medicated milk replacer. Bull calves that are for some reason treated should remain on the dairy until the veterinarian’s prescribed withdrawal times are completed. If your dairy uses medicated milk replacers for its replacement heifers then safety measures should be in place to ensure that medicated replacer is not fed to bull calves. Precautions to help prevent this should include physical separation of heifer calves and bull calves. Other aspects addressed in a bull calf SOP is that employees attending calving should be trained in the timely recognition of and assistance with dystocia, calf resuscitation and warming,colostrum administration (with “tubing” if needed), navel care and gentle calf transportation.

Pillar #2: Transaction Records with Calf Buyer– There have been anecdotal reports of discrepancies between the number and health of calves leaving the farm and their eventual disposition and value. A dairy employee should be present when the calf hauler receives bull calves to record the identity, health and condition of the calves marketed as well as receive receipts for those calves. The “Bull Calf Sales Log” should include date of transaction, the calf hauler’s signature and the hauler’s intended disposition for each calf (a calf ranch or direct slaughter). Finally the calf hauler should provide a receipt which included the hauler’s name, business address and license number and the number of calves received with their accompanying identification numbers.

Pillar #3: Calf Identification– If the dairy has adequate safeguards to place to prove that antibiotics and medicated milk replacers are not being administered to bull calves then calf identification can help keep the dairy free of regulatory entanglements. Bull calves can be identified by back-tag applied by the calf hauler or alternatively a USDA “silverbrite” ear-tag can be applied by dairy employees. These USDA tags can be obtained free of charge from the California Department of Food and Agriculture and will be registered to your specific dairy.

USDA Silver Bright Tag

Additional On-Line Resources

USDA: Veal from Farm to Table


Cornell University: Bull Calves – Simple Steps to Increase Your Profit


Dairy Herd Management: Dairy Calf Care – Every Delivery is Special


Colorado State University Website: Calving and Calf Care on Dairy Farms


Drovers Cattle Network: Emergency Calf Management after Dystocia


University of Minnesota: Dairy Beef Production Website


eXtension On-Line: Dairy Calf and Dairy Heifer Management


New York State Cattle Health Assurance Program (NYSCHAP): Calf Health Module


CDQAP: Webpage on Dairy Residue Avoidance


FARAD Searchable Database for Approved Animal Drugs & Withdrawal Times

(use “pre-ruminating calves”)


* Our special thanks to additional contributors & reviewers for this project:

Dr. John Adaska, California Animal Health & Food Safety Laboratory

Carol Collar, University of California Cooperative Extension

Frank Delgado, California Department of Food and Agriculture, Division of Inspection Services

Cyril Huisman, California Department of Food and Agriculture, Division of Inspection Services

Dr. Jessica Light, Zoetis Dairy Technical Services

Denise Mullinax, California Dairy Quality Assurance Program

Killeen Sanders, California Department of Food and Agriculture, Division of Inspection Services

Dr. Carolyn Stull, University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine