Hey, wait a minute. Don't most folks think crossbreds won that argument in the 1970s? Remember your Beef Cattle 101 class and the all-important concept of heterosis?
Leaving out the technicalities, heterosis, or hybrid vigor, means two breeds crossed together in a thoughtful, informed way produce calves that are better, at least in most traits, than the average of the two parents. Our professors convinced us that a commercial producer would be a fool to ignore that wonder of wonders, the crossbred cow. Add a bull of a third breed, and magic happens.
But that was then and this is now. Take a look at a current list of alliances. Established groups like Certified Angus Beef® (CAB) dole out healthy bonuses to those with straight, or nearly straight, Angus cattle that fit their specs. Need verification? Sit in a sale barn for an hour or so.
In that same list, however, are some of the newer kids on the block. Future Beef Operations (FBO) can't hide its enthusiasm for British/Continental cross cattle. And they promise to put their money where their specs are.
So, What To Do?
“It is not a debatable subject,” states Steve Radakovich, Earham, IA, producer. Without a doubt, his loyalties go to the crossbreds.
He should know. Even though he is in the seedstock business, since 1986 he's managed his purebred Angus herd and his composite herd of Red Angus, Hereford and Barzona as contemporary groups. Except when the cleanup bulls are in the breeding pastures, the cows run together. The young bulls from both herds are developed together, as are the heifers, and the steers are fed and marketed together.
Surprisingly, his list of crossbred advantages does not start with heterosis, but complementarity.
“What the different breeds add to the cross can be just as important as heterosis, especially in a harsh environment,” he maintains. He cites his satellite herd of composites in Oklahoma, developed to shrug off the effects of fungus-infected fescue.
“That is one of the beauties of crossbreeding,” agrees Larry Corah, CAB vice president. Formerly a Kansas State University animal scientist, Corah says heat-tolerant Brahman cattle are another example of the strengths that certain breeds or breed types can bring to particular environments.
“In South Florida, producers can utilize one breed — Brahman — on the female side, then bring in another breed on the sire side to add growth or carcass merit,” he explains.
Speaking of the finished product, Ronnie Green, FBO assistant vice president and director of genetic operations, says that is another plus for complementarity.
“No one breed hits the specs even for different types of markets. Blending breeds is the most efficient way to reach those specs,” he says.
“For example, Angus — both red and black — excel in marbling but not in red meat yield. Breed them to one of the Continental breeds, which excel in red meat yield. The blend of the two moves you closer to our target.”
Green, who was a Colorado State University animal scientist before joining FBO, is also adamant about the pluses of heterosis for commercial producers. “Heterosis is a gift from God,” he says. “We can't afford to give up those benefits.”
Jim Gosey, University of Nebraska animal scientist, agrees: “Specific traits like maternal ability, fertility, survivability in the calf and stayability in the cow are traits you can't get without a great deal of selection in straightbred cows.”
Radakovich's perspective is that “heterosis is at least a partial free lunch.” He says that crossbreeding “is like taking an insurance policy for when things get tough.”
When conditions are hot and dry, or wet and cold, “it shows in body condition and conception rates,” he says. “The crossbred cow stays in the herd a year or so longer. The calves with heterosis seem to survive better. But the advantages are less when things are cushy.”
Producer Warden Thomas has a herd of straightbred Angus, as well as Angus/Simmental-cross cows, on his Vine Grove, KY, operation. He says his crossbred calves seem to be a little healthier and stronger at birth. “The calves gain more — they are at least 50 lbs. heavier at weaning,” he adds.
On the cow side, he says, “The longevity is better. I've got crossbred cows that are 12 years old and up.”
Yeah, but what about the mantra for the last decade when feeders, packers and retailers were crying over and over for consistency and predictability?
“You can get that with crossbreds,” Gosey insists. “There is a nice set of data from the Meat Animal Research Center published in 1995. It compared the progeny from straightbreds versus crossbreds. There was no difference in the variability of the progeny in any of the major production traits.”
Radakovich echoes the Nebraska animal scientist, “In the economically important traits, there is no more inconsistency in crossbred cattle. They are just as uniform in growth and the carcass traits. If you understand genetics, you understand that.”
Green concurs: “Within a herd, you can create extremely consistent cattle using crossbreds.”
That settles it, right? Sam Hands, a commercial cow/calf producer, stocker operator and farmer-feeder, doesn't think so. He calls crossbreeding “a quick fix.”
He, too, brings some perspective. At their Garden City, KS, operation, he, his brothers and their father bred British/Continental-cross cattle from the 1960s until the '90s.
“We had quite a bit of success with it,” he comments. “It provides the best of all worlds without knowing anything about the animal. That was before we had EPDs.”
He also says that was before they went to spec production and marketing in their feedlot. After taking stock of their cow herd and their major market — U.S. Premium Beef, which buys on a quality grade-based grid, the Hands operation went to a straightbred Angus system.
“We wanted more natural fleshing ability and a little more productivity efficiency for our cows,” he explains. “We also wanted to improve the carcass traits but didn't want to give up efficiency.”
A funny thing happened on the way to those goals. “We had our reservations, but have accomplished that and improved all the traits in the middle, too, like feedlot efficiency,” he says.
He concedes, “Without EPDs and seedstock producers focused in the same direction we are, predictable success with straightbreds would be less likely.”
Hands says the road to a straightbreeding system hasn't been without its trials.
“Angus are not perfect. We've marketed everything on the rail for over 10 years. With a British animal, our challenge is a Yield Grade 4. In pens of British/Continental cattle, 4s are not an issue, but carcass weight could be.
“We're still trying to find the best of all worlds. What is the proper implant program, the proper energy level of the ration to optimize the net profit of the producer?” he asks.
However, he says, “With all the data from the Angus, plus their predictability and consistency, we're accomplishing our objectives. We can meet or surpass the quick fix from crossbreeding.”
While Hands is meeting his objectives with Angus — particularly the marketing objectives, producer James Wise of Samson, AL, is getting there with a Continental breed. He has been using nothing but Limousin bulls on his cows for the last 15 years. Now, almost 75% of the herd is close to purebred.
“The straightbreds milk well enough to wean calves weighing between 600 and 700 lbs., he says. “The Limousin out-gain anything we've ever had.”
The real bonus comes when he sells the Limousin feeder calves, and then again when they are harvested. While he says Laura's Lean, another long-timer in the branded beef business, doesn't demand a purebred Limousin, they do want growth and muscle.
They also pay for it. “This year we got $1.02 a lb. on a 6-weight basis for the steers. It is $6 under that for the heifers,” Wise says.
Although he doesn't own his cattle through the finishing phase, Wise gets a bonus from Laura's Lean at harvest for feedlot performance and positive carcass characteristics.
There's another plus for straightbreeding. With 400 cows, Wise could manage a crossbreeding system and still do some sorting for uniformity. If he chooses, Hands could implement one easily enough on his home herd of 300 cows. But, what about the typical producer with 20, 30 or even 100 cows?
Let's say you've decided on a two-breed rotational cross with Angus and Simmental bulls. Plus, you produce your own replacement heifers. The first year, you get a half Angus-half Simmental. But what about their heifers?
To be safe, they might be bred to an Angus bull for calving ease. Then, their calves will be ¾ths Angus. And same story with their heifer calves. They'll need to be bred to an Angus for calving ease. Their calves will be ⅞ths Angus.
Sure, after the first calf, you can breed them to a Simmental bull to keep the hybrid vigor going, but think of how many different combinations, percentage-wise, of Angus and Simmental you already have in just two or three generations.
“Logistically, it is extremely difficult to create that F1 female to truly optimize crossbreeding,” says Corah. “It's far more simple to breed straightbreds.”
Gosey says this problem can be reduced or eliminated by the use of composite bulls. At FBO, Green says they're building a producer network to breed and supply the F1 females to their other producers.
However, Corah maintains, “Generally, it is easier to create predictability and uniformity with straightbreds. And uniformity and predictability have huge value.
“With the advent of EPDs, there's no question that if you use selection pressure and management, you can still achieve high levels of reproductive efficiency in a straightbred herd,” he adds. “You can also have comparable growth and feed efficiency in straightbred cattle as compared to crossbreds.”
Wise says his cattle probably would benefit from crossbreeding. “If I see a dramatic difference in performance or weaning weights, I wouldn't hesitate to go to a bull of a different breed,” he says. “When you are in the commercial cattle business, you want as many pounds as you can get any way you can get them.”
But for the time being, only Limousins are in his bull pasture. He says, “Either one would work. It is a judgment call.”
Hands maintains, “Regardless of a person's choice of breeds or crosses, he has to know his initial resources and his end user target.”
Editor's note: To get an across-breed EPD chart online, or for more crossbreeding information, go to www.marc.usda.gov or contact Larry Cundiff, Meat Animal Research Station, Spur 18-D, P.O. Box 166, Clay Center, NE, 68933; 402/762-4171.
More information on pelvic measurements can be found in the Nebraska Beef Reports at www.ianr.unl.edu/pubs/beef.
Becky Mills is a rancher and freelance writer based in Cuthbert, GA.
Do your homework on birth weights
After weighing the pros and cons of crossbreeding versus straightbreeding, let's say you've decided to add a Continental bull to your British cows. But every time you pick up a sale catalog, you start having flashbacks to your 1970s attempt at crossbreeding. Sleepless nights. C-sections. Dead calves. Paralyzed cows.
Relax. These are not your Daddy's Charolais. Or Limousin. Or Simmental.
On the other hand, say you want to stick with straight Angus for calving ease and that market-friendly black hide, but you want to bump up the weaning and yearling weights. You can do it. However, Angus or not, you best take a look at the bulls' EPDs. Those boys have grown.
“In most Continental breeds in the last 25 to 30 years, they have identified sires with moderate calving ease and birth weights,” says Jim Gosey. “Not that it means these bulls can be used on first-calf, British heifers, but certainly on mature British cows.”
The University of Nebraska animal scientist continues, “If you take a historical look, it stands out that the British breeds have substantially increased in growth rate. There is terrific growth available — it has come up dramatically.
“It is a bell curve,” he says. “Many of those breeds that were so far apart 30 years ago have come closer together in growth rate and calving ease.”
So pay attention. And ideally pick those curve bender bulls in either the British or Continental breeds that combine calving ease and the other traits you're after.
Springfield, KY, commercial producer Jeff Settles uses Charolais, as well as Simmental and Gelbvieh, in his 90-cow, Angus-based herd. He agrees with Gosey on the change in Continental bulls.
“They have changed for the positive — absolutely,” he states. Still, he says, “I want the top of the breed, percentage wise, in calving ease.”
Gosey recommends taking a look at an across-breed EPD chart when using bulls other than Angus. The chart will help you convert their birthweight EPDs to the equivalent of an Angus. As a rule of thumb, he says, “On British or British-cross mature cows, they should be able to handle the equivalent of an Angus 5- or a 6-birth weight EPD.” On British or British-cross heifers, he recommends sticking with a birth weight EPD of 2 or less.
Along with birth weight EPDs, Future Beef Operation's Ronnie Green also says to consider your geographic area.
“The colder the environment, the heavier the calves,” he warns. In warmer climates, Green says a cow's cooling mechanism pulls the blood flow away from the uterus and toward her skin and extremities. With the blood go the nutrients for the calf. In cooler places, that blood and nutrient flow tends to go back toward the uterus.
Brahman genetics in the cow herd also help hold down birth weight. Green cautions, though, that birth weight and calving ease still needs to be a concern, even in South Florida. However, he says, “We can avoid most problems if we do our homework up front.”
As part of his homework, Settles has been using pelvic measurement scoring in his yearling replacement heifers. “We're not trying to get huge pelvic scores but to eliminate the little ones,” he comments. “What calving problems I still have are abnormal presentations.”
Gosey says, however, that the use of pelvic measurements is losing favor with researchers and producers. “The pelvic area to birth weight ratio is not very accurate. A lot of people who were taking pelvic measurements in commercial herds have abandoned that.”
After the original work on pelvic measurement scoring was done, scores of purebred producers began routinely measuring both bulls and yearling heifers. Commercial producers followed their example by taking pelvic measurements on heifers.
After 15 years of data and experience, though, Gosey says, “The only realistic thing to expect from taking pelvic scores on yearling heifers is to eliminate the worst, those that will have to have a C-section.” He says that is usually only one or two heifers out of 100. Generally, those are large heifers with small pelvic areas.