Crossbreeding Is Becoming Cool Again

While manicuring the individual trees of cattle performance traits, the cow-calf industry apparently missed the proverbial forest.

At least it has if you consider that three primary measures of cow productivity – weaning weight, pregnancy rate and pounds weaned per cow exposed – are static to declining. That’s according to data presented by David Lalman, Oklahoma State University Extension beef specialist, and Stan Bevers, Texas AgriLife Extension agricultural economist (see “U.S.Beef Cow Productivity Is Stagnant").

This comes at a time when seedstock producers generally defy the imagination each year with extraordinary improvement in genetic trend for a variety of traits.

There are plenty of possibilities for this static phenotypic performance in the face of such herculean genetic improvement. But, it would be hard to argue against the continued dilution of industry heterosis as the chief culprit.

Researchers at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, including pioneer geneticists Keith Gregory and Larry Cundiff, may have summarized it best in their seminal work, “Composite Breeds to use Heterosis and Breed Differences to improve Efficiency of Beef Production.” More than two decades ago, they wrote, “Heterosis can be used to increase the weight of calf weaned per cow exposed by 20%. Crossbred cows remain in the herd 1.3 years longer and have a 30% greater lifetime production than straight-bred cows.”

More recently, Scott Greiner, Virginia Tech University Extension animal scientist, authored the paper, “Crossbreeding – It’s Cool Again.”

He wrote: “The economic climate of today’s beef business is challenging. Commercial cow-calf producers are faced with optimizing a number of economically important traits, while simultaneously reducing costs of production in order to remain competitive. Traits such as reproduction, growth, maternal ability and end-product merit all influence productivity and profitability of the beef enterprise.

“Implementation of technologies and systems that both reduce costs and enhance productivity is essential. One of the oldest and most fundamental principles that have a positive influence on accomplishing these goals is crossbreeding,” he says.

Heterosis – especially maternal heterosis – means being able to increase production with the same inputs or maintain current production with fewer inputs. It provides the most return relative to input of any opportunity available. Plus, it returns the most in the toughest conditions.

Along with hybrid vigor, Greiner points out that the other advantage that comes with blending breeds is the opportunity to match their complementary strengths.

As producers consider and exploit heterosis, though, Greiner stresses, “A well-implemented crossbreeding program does not diminish the importance of sire selection. In fact, appropriate sire selection is the key to making the system sustainable.”

Producers who avoid crossbreeding offer a number of reasons. “It’s just too difficult, too labor and management intense,” goes one. It can be, especially for smaller herds, but the rapid growth of hybrid bull populations like Balancer (Gelbvieh X Angus), Sim-Angus (Simmental x Angus) and Lim-Flex (Limousin x Angus) means heterosis can be utilized as simply and conveniently as straight-breeding, albeit with less pop in hybrid vigor than with meticulous rotational crossbreeding.

“But those are just crossbred bulls,” goes another common reason. “You don’t know what you’re really getting.” In fact, the hybrids mentioned above and others can be registered through their respective breed associations and receive the same genetic evaluation as their purebred peers.

“Well, I’m trying to keep my calves this color or that one.” If it’s red or black you’re after, there’s an amazing variety of English x English, English x Continental and Continental x Continental combinations to preserve the color.

Incidentally, have you noticed what appears to be resurgent interest in Hereford and making traditional Black Baldies?

If it’s true that production and cost efficiency are the only ways to win in a commodity-based business, then it’s astounding so many are willing to subsidize their straight-bred druthers.