Simplicity, management key to successful program
Story by Lisa Henderson
Reprinted from Cattlemen' s News.
Fewer open cows, less death loss, more growth, more milk and more efficiency. Those are the significant economic advantages crossbreeding can offer your cattle operation.
“A crossbred cow is 25 percent more productive over her lifetime compared with a straight-bred commercial cow,” says University of Missouri animal scientist Jared Decker. “Not only do we see increased growth performance out of crossbred cattle, but we see significant impacts on fertility and reproduction.”
Decker adds bluntly, “All commercial operations should consider using crossbreeding.”
While the popularity of breeds can rise and fall over time, crossbreeding remains an advantageous practice for commercial herds.
Heterosis, or hybrid vigor, and breed complementarity are the primary benefits realized from a properly planned crossbreeding program. Heterosis is the increase in performance or function above what is expected based on the parents of the offspring.
Through crossbreeding, beef producers can also take advantage of breed complementarity.
“With breed complementarity, the strengths of one breed are matched to the weaknesses of another and vice versa,” Decker says. “Or, the optimum in the middle is achieved by using one breed with a high level and another breed with a low level.”
Clay Mathias of the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management at Texas A&M University, says crossbreeding is always a high leverage choice. “The choice of which breeds to use is basically free. However, the returns of a crossbreeding program are substantial. Crossbreeding improves fertility, age at weaning, weaning weight and longevity.”
Before implementing a crossbreeding program, however, animal scientists suggest you should:
- Define your current situation in relation to markets, breeds, nutrition, environment and management.
- Define what market, or markets, you are aiming for and determine breeding objectives.
- Define the management and nutrition levels it is possible to achieve in your environment.
- Decide which breed types will perform best in relation to your desired production traits.
One of the important considerations in a crossbreeding program is consistency, Decker says. “The ‘breed of the month’ club memberships have been revoked long ago. A crossbreeding system should use a small number of breeds (two or three), and should use the same breeds year after year.”
As an example, Decker says, “I marvel when I drive by a corn field how consistent the plants are. Yet, every plant in that field is a hybrid. Beef producers need to aim for this same level of consistency in their crossbreeding programs.”
The success of a crossbreeding program will depend on its simplicity and ease of management, according to animal scientists. Several factors and challenges need to be considered when evaluating choice of crossbreeding system, including:
1) Number of cows in the herd
2) Number of available breeding pastures
3) Labor and management
4) Amount and quality of feed available
5) Production and marketing system
6) Availability of high-quality bulls of the various breeds
Various research studies show the design of any crossbreeding program should take advantage of both heterosis and breed complementarity. An ideal crossbreeding program should 1) optimize, but not necessarily maximize, heterosis in both the calf crop and particularly the cow herd, 2) use breeds and genetics that fit the feed resources, management and marketing system of the operation, and 3) be easy to apply and manage.
“An often overlooked system for crossbreeding is to buy females in place of developing replacements from your own herd,” Decker says. “And, a producer could purchase a maternally oriented crossbred female, and then those crossbreed females would be bred to a terminal sire with 100 percent of the resulting calf crop marketed for beef.”
Again, however, Decker emphasizes that producers should evaluate their marketing endpoint and marketing system before launching a crossbreeding program.
“The choice of breeds needs to match the marketing goals,” he says.
Crossbreeding doesn’t necessarily mean you will sacrifice some traits for others. For instance, Decker says, “I have received reports of producers achieving 70 percent of their calf crop grading Prime while using a three-breed crossbreeding program.”
While such testimonials support crossbreeding, Decker admits that color might affect prices for calves at some auctions.
“If calves resulting from crossbreeding are not black, producers may need to be more strategic about marketing their cattle,” he says. “However, several programs are now in place to market crossbreed calves, such as the Red Angus Association of America’s Feeder Calf Certification Program or the American Hereford Association’s Hereford Advantage program.”
The Red Angus Feeder Calf Certification Program (FCCP) is a USDA Verified Genetic, Source and Age Program. The FCCP builds a reputation through source verification to the ranch of origin and, coupled with group age verification, provides producers with access to export market premiums.
The Hereford Advantage program on the other hand uses top-ranking Hereford bulls mated to British-cross cows with a focus on gain and end product merit.