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Genetic Rut Gets Deeper As Cattle Industry Ignores Crossbreeding

“Crossbreeding systems that exploit heterosis and complementarity and match genetic potential with market targets, feed resources and climate provide the most effective means of breeding for production efficiency.”

Larry Cundiff, research leader of the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center Genetics and Breeding Research Unit for better than three decades, provided this eloquent description of reality a few years back.

Nothing about that has changed.

Dog-eared research and experience indicate crossbred cows have longer reproductive lives, higher calving rates and healthier calves, among other advantages. Direct heterosis in the calf improves survivability, weaning growth, yearling growth and gain.

Yet, the industry's lack of interest in strategic crossbreeding also remains the same.

At least that's how it appears when you study the survey of genetics providers and users that BEEF published in mid-February ( The lion's share of commercial respondents — 70% — said their cowherds were primarily a high percentage or straight-bred British, or were mostly a British crossbred. As telling, 82.5% indicated no plans to alter the breed composition of their cowherd within the next five years. Of those planning to make a change, 60% plan to increase the percentage of British genetics.

Either as the response or driver, 90% of the seedstock suppliers in the same survey said they provide British purebred seedstock — Angus, Red Angus and/or Hereford bulls.

Keep in mind, the majority of crossbreeding benefit comes via maternal heterosis, the hybrid vigor of the cow herself.

There are plenty of logical reasons why crossbreeding doesn't fit the resources and goals of a specific operation. From an industry standpoint, though, it's tough to square so little use of heterosis with the growing need to increase rather than reduce or maintain efficiency. It's even harder to square when you realize composite and hybrid genetics offer crossbreeding advantages with “straight-breeding” convenience.

Of course, if the BEEF survey is correct, only 31% of commercial producers care much about knowing the specific pedigree of the bulls they buy. Even fewer — 29% — require a registration paper for making a purchase.

Of the likely possible explanations, there's only one positive one I can think of: The buyer is dealing with a trusted seedstock supplier who is building registered seedstock. The seller offers the paperwork, the EPDs and all of the rest, and the buyer says, “You know what I need; I'll let you keep track of the documentation and details. Just don't let me down.” There's nothing wrong with that. In fact, that's the type of customer/supplier relationship worth aspiring to.

The other likely explanations for so few bull buyers demanding registration papers or even the basic pedigree aren't as sunny:

  • The papers aren't available because the bulls are coming from a trader or a breeder — rather than a seedstock supplier — who sells bulls but doesn't register them, electing instead to ride on the coattails of those who do. In the survey, only 77% of the folks selling bulls said they provided registration papers.

  • The papers aren't available because the buyer's procurement revolves around picking up bulls through the local auction sale — young or old — for lots cheaper than those highfalutin ones the neighbor is selling.

Incidentally, according to the survey, 56% said the bulls they've purchased in the last three years have averaged between $1,500 and $2,500; 28% said between $2,500 and $3,500.

If the BEEF survey is an accurate reflection of the overall industry, and I believe it is, for all of the tools and technology available to slice and dice genetic potential — embraced wholeheartedly and profitably by some — not much has changed when it comes to genetic selection, management and use.

That's a shame.

TAGS: Breeding