Crossbred or straightbred calves
November 14, 2014
Most producers with spring-calving cow herds are at or near the end of their production year as they wean and sell calves. Some may be retaining ownership so its not quite the end for them yet, but weaning is still a momentous time with weaning weights and value being key measures of herd performance.
As we close out the production year, it's an important time to evaluate performance results and reflect on management practices to consider opportunities for improvement next year. One of the key things to reflect on is whether to keep or change the genetics and breeding program. This year's performance results can provide direction for bull buying decisions this coming winter and spring.
When we consider history, the 1980s and 90s were a period when crossbreeding was very popular, but many producers have since abandoned crossbreeding and returned to a straightbred herd, with Angus, either Black or Red, being very popular breeds. One of the main reasons to straightbred is simplicity, and these two breeds, among others, provide powerful tools such as EPDs to select bulls with improved genetics. On the other hand, the evidence is very strong that heterosis (hybrid vigor) that results from crossing unrelated individuals provides improved performance in a variety of areas including growth, health, reproduction, and maternal traits. The other powerful advantage from crossbreeding is bringing together complementary traits from more than one breed, such as high carcass quality from British breeds with muscling and growth from some of the Continental breeds.
When we consider calf value, an important question is: Does the increased carcass quality from straightbred British cattle (particularly Angus) add value in modern grid pricing that exceeds the value of improved growth and muscling because of heterosis and breed complementarity from British by Continental crossbred calves.
We conducted a study with the SDSU Antelope Research Station cow herd to consider this question. The cows are predominantly black Angus with bits of Simmental and Hereford breeding in their history. In the spring of 2011, we bred the cows to bulls that were either purebred Angus or Sim-Angus hybrids. The cows were estrus synchronized and half of the cows were bred to a single Black Angus sire and the other half to a single Sim-Angus sire. Cleanup bulls were purebred Angus. All sires, including AI and cleanup, were progeny of the same common sire, a trait leader for carcass quality in the Angus breed.
Calves were weaned in the fall of 2012, and steers were placed in a feedlot and fed to harvest in the spring of 2013. Suckling calf performance, feedlot performance, and carcass characteristics were measured. As one would expect, the steers from the hybrid sire gained more rapidly, had heavier hot carcass weights, and better (leaner) Yield grades, while the straightbred steers had higher Quality grades. Using the closeout sheets from the processing plant, we calculated the average carcass value per cwt and total carcass value for each sire breed group based on how they priced on the marketing grid that was in place on the day they were harvested. The result was that the straightbred sired steers were worth more per cwt because they had higher Quality grades, but the larger hot carcass weight of the Sim-Angus sired steers compensated for that so that in the end, the overall value of the carcasses were similar.
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Thus, our conclusion was that economic value of the calf crop, based on a model of retained ownership so finished calves were sold in the meat, could essentially be the same for straightbred vs. crossbred calves if managed and marketed to capture the value associated with the strengths of the breed(s) used. Despite this similarity, decisions about whether to crossbreed or straightbreed can still have important ramifications for genetic programs, including the importance and value of heterosis for health and cow performance, breeding system simplicity or complexity, and other factors that play roles in cow herd performance and profitability. It is also important to utilize genetic selection tools such as EPDs to select sires within the breed(s) used to optimize the traits of economic importance to the genetics and marketing plans for a given beef cattle operation.
Olson is an extension beef specialist for SDSU.