Dairy-to-Beef Conversion Project Launches

5/17/2014 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

A collaboration between a new Centre County feedlot and the Center for Beef Excellence will give producers more information about the process and cost of converting dairy buildings to beef uses.

Victor Woskob, 34, of Port Matilda, bought a century-old dairy farm from family friends in December 2012. The 64-acre farm — nearly 400 acres with leased land — is a return to Woskob’s roots.

Woskob’s family raised 1,100 beef cattle a year when he was a teenager, but the herd was sold, and Woskob became a utility contractor.

Now, he hopes to be feeding cattle by October in two auxiliary barns on the property, up to 100 cattle in one and 50 in the other.

“There’s some pretty expensive work to be done in the existing paddock” with fixing up concrete and installing new gates, Woskob said.

He also hopes to add backgrounding and finishing operations, but “the majority of the work lies in that existing dairy facility,” Woskob said.

The fairly modern dairy barn is 36 by 126 feet with 52 tie stalls and gutter cleaners.

The parlor will become the sorting area where Woskob can receive and segregate the cattle. Because tie stall barns have uneven floors, he plans to pour a new floor to get a flat surface.

Woskob said the stalls and other dairy equipment are going, though he has not decided what to do with the bulk tank and some of the other equipment.

While the buildings will not be done until the fall, Woskob has already gotten back into cattle on a small scale.

He bought Angus steers late last year and finished them. He has not replaced them yet because of the construction.

“Although it was not my plan when purchasing those cattle, I ended up selling (the feeders) mostly as freezer beef to friends and family who continue spreading the word,” Woskob said.

He expects he will continue with the freezer animals because of the positive response, but he still plans to contract groups of cattle to processors.

In addition, Woskob is breeding 14 registered Herefords with an Angus bull. Not a part of the feedlot operation, Woskob will keep those animals for his enjoyment and as show animals for his three young daughters, he said.

Throughout the building renovation process, the Center for Beef Excellence will shoot videos of the project’s steps to give other farmers an idea of what a dairy-to-beef conversion entails.

“I’m willing to share my personal experiences,” Woskob said.

The center had been looking to do this type of project for a while, said Ann Nogan, the group’s executive vice president.

The center realized that many Pennsylvania cow-calf farmers were shipping their calves out of state, only to have the feeders brought back to Pennsylvania for processing, Nogan said.

At the same time, former dairy farmers from the Marcellus shale region have the opportunity to convert their unused buildings to feedlots and keep working with cattle at a more relaxed pace, she said.

Beef conversion, then, would meet a market need, satisfy farmers’ lifestyle preferences and put vacant buildings back into production at the same time, Nogan said.

Many farmers have been looking for more information about retrofitting dairy barns for beef. “We are super excited that it’s taking place,” Nogan said.

It is too soon to know what the renovation will cost, but Woskob said he wants to share those numbers with interested producers once the project is done.

The center’s leaders will meet next Friday with politicians and state Department of Agriculture officials at Woskob’s farm to discuss the project.

Woskob will hold a public open house in July with more information and vendors for producers looking to make the switch.

He also plans a grand opening after he brings in the cattle and future beef events run by his wife, Gina Woskob, an event coordinator.

Giving dairy barns a beef-friendly makeover means more than tearing out the milking system.

“Generally, beef systems are a little more densely populated than dairy buildings,” said Dan McFarland, a Penn State Extension engineer.

Finishing steers need less space per animal than dairy cows, and they are typically put on a bedded pack, not in stalls like many dairy cows, McFarland said.

The greater concentration of animals means the animals will put more moisture and gases into the air, possibly requiring ventilation upgrades. If the building uses natural air exchange, the farmer may need to open up the side walls or the ridge, he said.

Like Woskob, many farmers who convert to beef use the dairy barn as a sorting area to receive and group the cattle.

Working the cattle often goes best with different gate and chute configurations than dairies use, McFarland said.

“Gates and so on may need to be a little more durable,” he said. Beef farmers have told him their animals are harder on gates than dairy cows.

Beef animals typically need a little less space for feeding than dairy animals, though they may compete more for feed than milkers.

Just as in dairy, it is important to make sure the animals get easy access to both food and water, McFarland said.

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