A modern look at crossbreeding
Many people still wonder if crossbreeding is a valid tool for breeding cattle.
Without a doubt, more and more cattle are being straightbred every year, with Angus being the dominate breed. The two main benefits of crossbreeding are heterosis and breed complementarity. Breeds used in crossbreeding have also changed at a blinding pace, so I will spend the rest of this article looking at heterosis, breed complementarity and current state of some breeds.
Science, mainly done in the 1980s, tells us that crossbreeding is an extremely profitable tool with returns reaching 23 percent per cow/calf unit per year above a straightbred cow. This is due to heterosis or the enhanced performance above the expected average of the parent breeds. It is well understood that the majority of the 23 percent comes from having a crossbred cow with most of it in the improvement in traits of low heritability. For example, high impact heterosis traits would include fertility, calf vigor, longevity, disease resistance, etc. One big warning here about your seedstock genetic inputs is “garbage in and garbage out.” Yes, you will get a heterosis affect between any two breeds, but if one of them is objectively inferior for the traits going in, you will still have lost ground in your resulting calf crop.
Breed complementarity is when breeds match-up with each other’s strengths and weaknesses. A typical example being having a high maternal, high marbling, low growth cow herd bred to a high growth, heavy muscled bull. Breed complementarity is 100 percent heritable and highly underused.
Again, “garbage in, garbage out” applies to seedstock inputs for this.
You really cannot use your father’s or grandfather’s stereotypes of breeds when assessing them for crossbreeding or you will in big trouble.
The rate of change is astounding. Breeds have, in many cases, flip-flopped with some British breeds having traits similar to Continentals and vice versa.
Some of the Continental breeds lost their advantage in growth as an off-shoot of lowering birthweight and making their cattle black so they would be eligible for Angus product lines. Meanwhile, many Angus breeders have focused on $B, a terminal feedlot, grid index, which put Angus at about top for yearling growth and carcass traits, but according to USDA research, it has also fallen back some in reproduction.
To use breeds correctly in crossbreeding you must know their strengths and weaknesses, so let’s look at some of the top breeds (WLJ BBG pp 119, UDSA research, recent observation).
Angus Strengths: Combines calving ease, growth, milk and carcass traits like no other breed; inherent resistant to BRD; calf vigor; well funded association builds genetic evaluation tools that people use. Weaknesses: Lower than average reproductive efficiency; large mature size; very high milk; high mature cow maintenance requirements; a few bloodlines have disposition problems.
Hereford Strengths: Extreme environmental adaptability (desert, etc.); feed efficiency; outstanding disposition. Weaknesses: Has relatively low carcass and performance traits with large mature size.
Charolais Strengths: Stayed true to Continental purpose—big frame, very high growth, heavy muscled; light color for heat resistance. Weaknesses: High birth, low marbling, color.
Simmental Strengths: Basically eliminated the big, bad flower colored cattle from the population and replaced them with more moderate frame, solid colored, easier calving, high early growth cattle with high but more moderate milk production; good reproduction.
Weaknesses: High inherent BRD risk, lower vigor.
Red Angus Strengths: Typical Angus traits of moderate growth, milk, excellent reproduction, longevity and marbling; highly reliable genetic predictions; red hide for environmental adaptability; good disposition.
Weaknesses: Light muscled; not black hided for easy access to Angus product lines, but do have a tagging program; too large mature size.
Gelbvieh Strengths: Moderate mature weight and growth; high milk; greatly moderated birth weight; leads the industry in hybrids. Weaknesses: Not high growth; very high milk may limit the number of environments the cattle will work.
Limousin Strengths: Very heavy muscled; moderate mature size; moderate early growth; high feed efficiency. Weaknesses: Very low marbling; low inherent early fertility; low growth to a year; disposition problems exist in too many bloodlines.
This 30,000-foot view of these breeds is just that, looking at the average of the breeds. But remember, it is said that there is as much difference within a breed as between breeds. The main thing is look at how a breed or a breeder’s cattle will fit into your crossbreeding program. The science of crossbreeding is still valid! Heterosis is still a free lunch, and breed complementarity is the quickest way to fix a problem rather than trying to make a breed into what it’s not meant to be.
Three BIG take home messages on crossbreeding: 1) crossbreeding still works; 2) remember that on your crossbreeding genetic inputs when you put Garbage in, you get Garbage out; and 3) more of a trait is not necessarily better! —
Dr. Bob Hough
[Dr. Bob Hough has served as the executive vice president of the Red Angus Association of American and more recently as executive vice president of the North American Limousin Foundation from 2009 to early 2011. He is now a consultant, freelance writer and semiretired.]