Crossbreeding cattle adds value for ranchers
The process of crossbreeding cattle is similar to having good intentions, according to a beef extension specialist at the University of Idaho Twin Falls Research and Extension Center. Brenton Glaze told cattle producers during the Range Beef Cow Symposium that even if producers have good intentions crossbreeding cattle, the process may not be carried out like it should be.
Developing a successful crossbreeding program involves a lot of trial and error, Glaze said. Producers have to be concerned about matching the cattle to the environment, and production and marketing goals. Sharing data from a 2007 Beef Improvement Federation meeting, producers in the audience were polled about where they saw the industry going in regards to crossbreeding cattle. More than 70 percent of the audience agreed that cattle should be crossbred, and that the ideal market steer would be a crossbreed.
However, Glaze wondered if that is really what the cattle industry produces. Looking at the 2007 calf crop, 85 percent were born as crossbred calves from 83 percent crossbred cows. “When we look at those numbers, it matches up pretty well with Beef Improvement Federation numbers,” Glaze said.
Producers who choose to crossbreed their cattle have the distinct benefit of heterosis. “There is a definite performance advantage of crossbreds versus the average of their straightbred parents. Improvement in performance is available from breeding crosses of breeds versus within breeds,” Glaze said.
The heterosis gained by crossbreeding can add more than a few extra dollars to the producer’s wallet. “The level of heterosis gained is really determined by the degree of genetic difference within the breeds used. As the animals become more genetically similar, the less heterosis the offspring will have,” he said.
Some production traits have higher levels of heterosis than others, Glaze said. Traits like calving rate percentage, weaning weight, and yearling weight have a higher percentage of heterosis, while other traits like survival to weaning as a percentage have less heterosis.
While heterosis is the tendency of a crossbred animal to show traits superior to both its parents, heritability measures the amount of variation in a trait that is due to genetics, Glaze said. Traits like reproduction have low heritability, but high heterosis. Growth has moderate heritability and high heterosis, and carcass merit has high heritability and low heterosis. “Keep in mind the different categorization of the different traits,” he said.
Ranchers who are considering a crossbreeding program should select breeds that complement each other. For instance, producers who live in the south may consider crossing a breed like Brahman with their Angus so the offspring are more tolerant to heat, Glaze used as an example. “I always tell people to remember that no breed is the best at everything. Combining the right breeds can allow that offspring to excel in multiple traits,” he said.
All breeds have favorable attributes and some that are not so favorable, but breed complementarity is a way to fill out or complete traits that are mutually beneficial, Glaze said. “Use it as a means to look at or evaluate how the various breeds perform in certain traits. I would recommend looking at it from time to time to see if the cattle are excelling in the traits you need to improve upon.”
Looking at a summary of the breeds can also indicate how the breeds rank in individual production traits. “The trend is to monitor traits like birth weight, so it doesn’t rise too much. All breeds have increased in terms of weaning weights. Looking at how they have changed over time can help you understand the trends, see how the breeds rank in comparison to one another, and how one breed can possibly fill a void left by another,” he said.
Using breed complementarity, producers can select the breeds that will best meet their marketing goals, as well as the goals for their operation and desired level of performance. “Ask yourself if the breeds you are using meet the targets,” he said. Look at milk production or any of the traits that need improvement, and select animals to put in the operation that can help a producer reach the full genetic potential. “Find ways to select animals that match the environment and the market, to take full advantage of breed complementarity,” he said.
For producers who are struggling with the decision to start crossbreeding their cattle, Glaze recommended enlisting the help of an expert. “There are plenty of people out there who could help you design a crossbreeding program. First, ask yourself if crossbreeding could benefit your operation. Then ask yourself why we don’t see more of it in the industry, and if you have chosen not to crossbreed your cattle, then why not? It could be a learning experience,” Glaze said.
As a final thought, Glaze shared the results of a study in California where Angus-based cows were randomly mated to Hereford and Angus bulls over several years. During the first year of the study, 400 cows were mated to 10 bulls of each breed, and 600 cows were mated to 15 bulls of each breed during years two and three.
The Hereford-sired calves were 15 pounds heavier at weaning and netted $18 more per head than the Angus-sired calves. Feedlot performance and cost of gain was similar between both groups of calves. However, there was almost a $29 difference in value by crossbreeding, when researchers looked at performance at the ranch, in the feedlot, and the carcass value. Glaze said in the final two years of the study, the Hereford-sired females also showed a 7 percent advantage in pregnancy rates. ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.