Greg Lardy: Don’t overlook a well-managed crossbreeding program |

Greg Lardy: Don’t overlook a well-managed crossbreeding program

As you evaluate the myriad of options out there for breeding programs this time of year, don’t forget about the advantages of a well-managed crossbreeding program.

The reasons supporting crossbreeding are many. Crossbred cows are typically more productive, have greater fertility, and produce heavier calves than purebred cows. In addition, traits like longevity and adaptability are enhanced in a well-planned crossbreeding program. Data from the USDA-ARS Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in Clay Center, NE, indicate that over their productive lifetimes, crossbred cows are 25 percent more productive than purebred cows. About two-thirds of that advantage comes from the crossbred cow, while one-third comes from the crossbred calf.

Heterosis, or hybrid vigor, is the term used to describe the increase in productivity when comparing crossbred offspring to their purebred parents. Traits which benefit the greatest from heterosis are those that are low in heritability. These include things like fertility, adaptability, and longevity. In the northern Great Plains, these are all very important traits.

A really great benefit is that crossbreeding influences ranch profitability. More efficient cows mean lower feed bills! More productive cows mean more dollars from your calf crop at marketing time! The amount of heterosis for any given cross is determined by the difference between the two parent breeds. The greater the degree of difference between the parent breeds, the greater the potential for heterois in the offspring.

Table 1 shows the level of individual heterosis you can expect to achieve with a crossbred individual. For example, a crossbred calf would be expected to be nearly 4 percent heavier at weaning than its purebred counterpart.

Table 2 shows the level of maternal heterosis you can expect in a crossbred cow. This is where the value of a crossbreeding system really shows up in commercial ranching operations. Over the course of the crossbred cow’s lifetime, you can expect her to produce calves with about 25 percent more weaning weight than her purebred counterpart. This benefit results from the fact that the crossbred cow has greater longevity, greater pregnancy rates, and gives birth to calves with better survival rates.

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Taking advantage of breed complementarity in designing a crossbreeding program will result in a combination of traits in the offspring that is superior to the traits of the individual parents. For example, in the data from MARC, Hereford-Angus cross cows are moderate in frame size, milk production, and growth rate, making them well suited for a variety of production systems across the country.

Many commercial producers have become disenchanted with the complexity of some crossbreeding systems over the years. However, a simple two breed rotational cross or a terminal sire program in which crossbred replacement females are purchased can simplify the systems and reduce the number of breeding pastures needed. A two breed rotational cross will offer 67 percent of the maximum heterosis possible, while a terminal sire system will offer 100 percent of the maximum heterosis possible. In addition, there are a number of purebred breeders who offer “hybrid” or composite cattle. These cattle can be utilized to get the benefits of crossbreeding without having an incredibly complicated crossbreeding program in place on your ranch. The KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) applies here. Don’t make it any more complicated than it needs to be.

Take the time now to evaluate your crossbreeding program. Are you taking advantage of all the benefits that a well thought out program can offer? If not, maybe it is time to reevaluate your breeding program to take advantage of some of the productivity traits that crossbreeding has to offer.