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The Argument Over Straight-Breeding

The Argument Over Straight-Breeding

Before beginning this discussion, I need to make it clear that I raise purebred cattle. And like most breeders, I love the breed of cattle I’m associated with. I believe it excels in the economically relevant traits of beef production. And I believe the breed has the best genetic evaluations, the largest genetic base, and provides the most opportunity for improving profitability in commercial beef production scenarios.

When it comes to discussing the benefits of straight breeding vs. crossbred mating, it needs to be recognized that the vast majority of the genetics we produce are marketed as purebred cattle. That likely will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. 

With that said, it would not be surprising for me to echo the increasingly popular sentiment that raising purebred cattle [3] commercially is economically viable. There’s a reason that 70% of the nation’s cowherd is Angus-influenced, and straight breeding can be an economically viable solution for certain operations with specific marketing targets, management constraints and environmental conditions. It’s a testament to the genetic evaluation programs and the incredible progress of seedstock producers that it can be legitimately argued that straight-bred cattle can be the most profitable.

A Closer Look: Straight Breeding Is The Commercial Trend [4]

I also recognize that traditional crossbreeding programs, while theoretically sound, have proven problematic when implemented in real-world situations. There are several good reasons why straight breeding has been increasing despite the advice of land-grant universities and their economic and animal breeding departments.

Without question, crossbreeding [5] initially was viewed as a way to increase growth, but the various breeds have done such an incredible job of selecting for rapid early growth that the pound advantage due to heterosis [6] is probably less than at any time in our modern history. In fact, studies indicate the advantage isn’t so much on the terminal side as is traditionally assumed, but on the maternal, reproductive and longevity side of the female. 

I have a real passion for one particular breed, and what that breed has done from a genetic trend standpoint is simply amazing. I have no doubt I can provide you within that given population just about any combination of genetics you want. And it’s understandable that as this breed’s market share has grown, its supporters have increasingly advocated straight breeding.

This breed wants to continue to grow market share. In order to do that, it had to make the fundamental decision on whether to embrace composites utilizing their genetics. They decided not to do so. In retrospect, I have to believe that was a good thing for the industry, as it allowed the other breeds to embrace and become the leaders in the production of hybrid/composite breeding stock; and, in the process, maintained the competitive nature of the seedstock business.

Had Angus become a player in the composite market, in essence, it would have become almost a monopoly, with probably only 2-3 breeds surviving in smaller narrowly defined niches (1-2 terminal breeds, 1-2 maternal complements). The problem with Angus choosing not to be part of the composite movement was the de facto implication that they must oppose it if they are to continue to increase market share.

This has put them in a rather difficult marketing position. Compared to traditional crossbreeding systems [7], straight breeding often makes sense simply because it is simpler to implement and easier to make consistent incremental improvements within. Composite cattle [8], though, override that simplicity argument and make it easier to take advantage of heterosis as well as breed complementarity.

The reality is that animal breeding has increasingly become a game of defying genetic antagonisms. It’s relatively “simple” to make a maternally or terminally oriented animal. The question is how to combine them in a comprehensive breeding program. 

The tools [9] we have today are absolutely amazing, as is the genetic improvement that’s been achieved. It’s possible to produce cattle today that defy genetic antagonisms, but the reality is that it’s actually more complicated ‒ and usually more expensive ‒ to do it in a straight-bred scenario.