My View From The Country

The Argument Over Straight-Breeding

The tools we have available in the cattle industry today are absolutely amazing, as is the genetic improvement that’s been achieved.

Before beginning this discussion, I need to make it clear that I raise purebred cattle. And like most breeders, I love the breed of cattle I’m associated with. I believe it excels in the economically relevant traits of beef production. And I believe the breed has the best genetic evaluations, the largest genetic base, and provides the most opportunity for improving profitability in commercial beef production scenarios.

When it comes to discussing the benefits of straight breeding vs. crossbred mating, it needs to be recognized that the vast majority of the genetics we produce are marketed as purebred cattle. That likely will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. 

With that said, it would not be surprising for me to echo the increasingly popular sentiment that raising purebred cattle commercially is economically viable. There’s a reason that 70% of the nation’s cowherd is Angus-influenced, and straight breeding can be an economically viable solution for certain operations with specific marketing targets, management constraints and environmental conditions. It’s a testament to the genetic evaluation programs and the incredible progress of seedstock producers that it can be legitimately argued that straight-bred cattle can be the most profitable.

A Closer Look: Straight Breeding Is The Commercial Trend

I also recognize that traditional crossbreeding programs, while theoretically sound, have proven problematic when implemented in real-world situations. There are several good reasons why straight breeding has been increasing despite the advice of land-grant universities and their economic and animal breeding departments.

Without question, crossbreeding initially was viewed as a way to increase growth, but the various breeds have done such an incredible job of selecting for rapid early growth that the pound advantage due to heterosis is probably less than at any time in our modern history. In fact, studies indicate the advantage isn’t so much on the terminal side as is traditionally assumed, but on the maternal, reproductive and longevity side of the female. 

I have a real passion for one particular breed, and what that breed has done from a genetic trend standpoint is simply amazing. I have no doubt I can provide you within that given population just about any combination of genetics you want. And it’s understandable that as this breed’s market share has grown, its supporters have increasingly advocated straight breeding.

This breed wants to continue to grow market share. In order to do that, it had to make the fundamental decision on whether to embrace composites utilizing their genetics. They decided not to do so. In retrospect, I have to believe that was a good thing for the industry, as it allowed the other breeds to embrace and become the leaders in the production of hybrid/composite breeding stock; and, in the process, maintained the competitive nature of the seedstock business.

Had Angus become a player in the composite market, in essence, it would have become almost a monopoly, with probably only 2-3 breeds surviving in smaller narrowly defined niches (1-2 terminal breeds, 1-2 maternal complements). The problem with Angus choosing not to be part of the composite movement was the de facto implication that they must oppose it if they are to continue to increase market share.

This has put them in a rather difficult marketing position. Compared to traditional crossbreeding systems, straight breeding often makes sense simply because it is simpler to implement and easier to make consistent incremental improvements within. Composite cattle, though, override that simplicity argument and make it easier to take advantage of heterosis as well as breed complementarity.

The reality is that animal breeding has increasingly become a game of defying genetic antagonisms. It’s relatively “simple” to make a maternally or terminally oriented animal. The question is how to combine them in a comprehensive breeding program. 

The tools we have today are absolutely amazing, as is the genetic improvement that’s been achieved. It’s possible to produce cattle today that defy genetic antagonisms, but the reality is that it’s actually more complicated ‒ and usually more expensive ‒ to do it in a straight-bred scenario.

Discuss this Blog Entry 21

Anonymous (not verified)
on Nov 9, 2012

An opinion by an Angus breeder about why Angus should be the only breed on the planet is like asking a Chevy dealer what is his favorite pickup.
Angus certainly has a place in the beef industry along with many other breeds. There is NO one-size-fits-all. AAA has corner the market on media spin and has done a great job of it. Don't tell the consumer though how many black hided crossbred calves make it into CAB. Ask Tom Brink of JBS what the perfect calf to feed is...not straightbred Angus. But what does he know right, they only feed around a million calves. Tearing others down doesn't make you better, just check politics today. The values of crossbreeding are just as relevant as ever, and if they weren't, we wouldn't see this full court press by Angus trying to convince everyone otherwise

Mark (not verified)
on Nov 9, 2012

Anonymous #1--you need to improve your reading comprehension and get the last part of the article like Anonymous #2.

Ken Stephens KEG Hereford Ranch (not verified)
on Nov 9, 2012

What is so hard about implementing a two breed criss-cross system. We cross Hereford and Angus back and forth, maintain a 1,200 lb. cow, have steers that convert at less than 5 to 1 and have only lost money in the feedlot three of the last eighteen years. The X-bred cows last longer, are easy to handle and are efficient enough to survive on less than their NRC requirements would suggest they need.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Nov 9, 2012

Well written article that had me fooled as to your opinion until the end. You must read the last paragraph very carefully. You make many very good points, but at the end of the day, just like at the end of your article, straight breeding just doesn't add for the majority of commercial cow-calf producers.

Gary Gates (not verified)
on Nov 9, 2012

Great catch by the previous commenter. After the entirety of the article, I read that last paragraph incorrectly. However, I am not sure then what the article is trying to say because it says about everything. If you are reading the Angus Assoc rhetoric, I would say they indeed do want to become a monopoly. But those of us to have crossbreeding programs in place know that it does not have to be difficult. In fact it continues to get easier with composite cattle. I feel strongly that most, if not all breeds, have made great genetic improvements not just Angus. The Angus breed is an integral part of the industry, but I hope they don't continue their current assault on crossbreeding.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Nov 9, 2012

Troy, I have enjoyed and learned from you editorials for many years.
In this particular case, as a purebred (straight Hereford) and crossbred (Braford) breeder, I differ significantly on today´s publication. Consider the conflict of interest inherent to the breeds I work with and that I also consider Angus a good breed.
There are times and places for every breed an it´s crosses.
Try ANY pure breed in a 10" rainfall area in the semi desert.
I could fill this space with the advantages and positive margin crossbreeding -heterosis- has given to our operation, based mainly on what you wisely state above about hererosis... "but on the maternal, reproductive and longevity side of the female".
Not to mention better weaning weights.
To us, cow calf operators, this factors add up significantly.
Crossbreds are only as good as the breeds and individuals you use to obtain them and the percentages you determine as your final cross.

Best regards.

DOC HARRIS (not verified)
on Apr 3, 2013

"Crossbreds are only as good as the breeds and individuals you use to obtain them and the percentages you determine as your final cross."

Steve (not verified)
on Nov 9, 2012

Straightbreeding is easy to implement, but so is a composite.

Crossbreeding was not done initially in the US to increase growth. It was done to create B. taurus-B-indicus combinations that were better adapted to production conditions while not being penalized at the market as much as straight B. indicus. Later, some found they could breed yearling Hereford heifers to Angus bulls without excessive dystocia. Some kept those black baldy females and found what maternal heterosis could offer.

The fact that breeds have become similar in size (weight) does not reduce potential heterosis. Don't confuse phenotypic merging with genetic merging. Look at the old often-cited USDA-Ft. Robinson research with Angus-Hereford-Shorthorn. Those cattle were similar in size, but crossing them resulted in significant heterosis for weight. That's just one example.

There is no question that heterosis can be favorably used, and is. Just look at the poultry and swine industries. They would find any discussion these days of straightbreeding to be irrelevant. True, it is not as easy to implement crossbreeding in our industry. Crossbreeding is not a Free Lunch but it can be a Cheap Lunch, and a tasty one.

Tom Smith (not verified)
on Nov 9, 2012

While we all want to produce the product our customers prefer, we don't all have the same environment. Right here in my county, there are rocky, brush pastures, fertile river and creek bottoms, and open, deep sandy-loam uplands. In the more remote locations, ranchers have to contend with bears and mountain lions. Because these ranchers can not check their herd daily, calving trouble can not be tolerated. Several of the larger operations that have never had an outside income utilize Longhorn or Brahman-crossbred, or both, just to increase the calf survival rate. The English and Continental breeds have proven to these ranchers, many in their 70's, that the females of the breed aren't sufficiently protective to consistently bring in a calf.To make a long lecture shorter, we have to maintain a cow herd that fits our individual environment, and use bulls on them that will produce a calf to fit today's market. A few days ago, I saw a chart that compared the efficiency of 9 breeds of cow during times of drought (limited forage) and heavy rainfall (surplus forage). They were ranked based on calf weight produced per unit of dry matter consumed. The ranking changed drastically between scenarios. Angus was second best in one situation and second worst in the other. If I were to select a single breed based on that information, I'd switch to Pinzgauer. And I've never even considered owning one before.

John R. Dykers, Jr. (not verified)
on Nov 14, 2012

Amen to Tom Smith.

D. A. (not verified)
on Nov 15, 2012

Another amen to Tom Smith. The cattle must fit the environment, the management and the market. We raise our cattle in a low-altitude, hot humid summer environment with sometimes ruthless winters and frequent droughts. Our cattle must graze out in summer heat, tolerate toxic fescue, and forage through ice and snow. When Angus go to the shade, our Herefords can still graze in the sun. They don't need any grain to produce finished beef right here at home to be marketed directly to the customer as all grass fed beef. We work on foot, using management-intensive grazing, and demand that our cattle don't kick, charge or try to kill the people who lead them from pasture to pasture. Many good cattlemen in our area with straightbred Angus cow herds (red as well as black) have sought out our bulls for good temperament and ease of handling, as well as for heterosis, to get the many advantages of highly maternal baldy females and steers that will grade well as CAB. Straight-breeding is a dangerous practice to try to sell to commercial cattlemen. Over-concentration in their gene pool has already proven its dangers to some purebred Angus breeders, and could end up hurting commercial Angus breeders just for the sake of taking more market share. Black Angus breed leaders have been master marketers for decades now. Marketing has made the word Angus a substitute for the word "beef" on television's fast food ads. Taking more of a share than is wise is just the kind of greed that could hurt the whole cattle industry in the long run.

on Nov 9, 2012

"In fact, studies indicate the advantage isn’t so much on the terminal side as is traditionally assumed, but on the maternal, reproductive and longevity side of the female. "

I hope that's not really news! If the advantage has been "assumed to be on the terminal side" many folks now raising cattle, must have slept through their animal breeding classes and years of Extension programming.

When Bob Scarth showed UG Prototype to grand champion steer at Chicago some forty years ago, the Charolais sire FWT Cotano 249 was enhancing growth, frame and muscling of his Angus dam. These are additive effects with high heritabilites which respond rapidly to selection.

His small framed, but long bodied straight Angus dam was a reproductive wreck as we saw in a records class in livestock judging.

Can one great steer calf every three years pay for a cow's upkeep?

The bonus for crossbreeding has always been in the economically critical traits with low heritabilities.

Conception, longevity, mothering ability, milking ability (captured mostly by weaning weight as a trait of the dam, not as a growth trait of the calf). The crossbred female produces more pounds of calf weaned per cow exposed than straight bred females.

Direct selection has produced many black hided breeds with terminal cross sires, and forty years of tandem and index selection has produced some sires that combine growth and carcass quality.

Those purebreds may work in some sectors, but for the cow-calf producer putting cows out where grain won't grow and combines can't travel, the crossbred cow will prevail.

As feed and fuel costs continue to rise, unit cost of production will continue to be key to survival. And,if hot dry summers continue, it might be nice to have a light colored steer that can stand the heat.

OK, now I see Steve has said much the same.

I think his point on pork and poultry affirms the value of crossbreeding on cost of production.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Nov 9, 2012

I do not understand or agree with any breed association striving to monopolize the market. I simply believe it is not good for the beef industry. I have a herd made up of mostly black angus and I like my black ballies the most.

I still have a small group of charolais cows, they are moderate framed, their performance is in the top third of my herd. It frustrates me that those calves are docked at sale time. I may begin painting them with black shoe polish. An old timer told me a charolais steer painted black won first place at the National Stock Show in the 70's and was stripped of the honor when the true color was discovered.

The Angus Association's marketing has gone beyond being wildy successful. Capitalizing on consumer ignorance at the expense in some ways of ranchers with other breeds of cattle. I can accept this for the most part, its called capitalism. But the desire to monopolize the industry (which I thought already has happened) is going too far. It is possible to have too much of a good thing!

Anonymous (not verified)
on Nov 10, 2012

The only colors that need to be talked about are the black and red associated with the bottom line. The biggest enemy of the beef community is the beef community. While our weak minds are trying to justify our own agendas by making something so simple complicated, the beef community suffers as a whole. Congratulations to all for a waste of time and effort.

Neckrein (not verified)
on Nov 11, 2012

Today's "purebreds" are already a crossed-up mixture, whose only common bond is color. As Troy says in the article "... I can provide you within that given population just about any combination of genetics you want."

I search bull sale catalogs for some indications of an individual whose genes are relatively homogenous, and rarely find one. In the current environment there really is no longer an isolated genoTYPE among purebreds.

John R. Dykers, Jr. (not verified)
on Nov 14, 2012

There is surely as much genetic variation within a breed as between breeds.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Nov 11, 2012

I would call this particularj column "Tip-toe through the Tulips" by Troy Marshall. I had to go back and read it several times before I decided I agreed with you with all but one statement. I am a Simmental breeder who is proud of the progress made by "my" breed in the 15 years since I became serious about it. I have also admired certain traits of many other breeds and appreciate a good cow of any color or breed. Meanwhile, I go on breeding a cow or bull that will work on the lush mountain pastures of our Appalachian Mountain region of Pennsylvania.

wesmetzker (not verified)
on Nov 14, 2012

whatever your breed of choice is we are all in this together.And theres a place for all breeds somewhere. most of the time we pick a breed that is a family tradition thats why it turns into a hot topic,cause we all feel we have to defend our family!!! go simmys!!!

Anonymous (not verified)
on Nov 14, 2012

Best genetic evaluations come on Troy what were you thinking ?

John R. Dykers, Jr. (not verified)
on Nov 14, 2012

I started with 4 bred black angus cows. After they calved their Angus sired calves, I had a friend come AI them to a Charolais bull he had in his semen tank. All 4 bred with one insemination! After I saw how those 4 crossbred (Charolais on Angus) calves grew compared to the 4 I had just weaned off, I never looked back. Ran cows with a neighbor who had a dutch mixture including Angus, Hereford, Brown Swiss, Shorthorn, and God knows what else, while I learned and he and the county agent taught and experience taught me.
We evolved into a Purebred Charolais herd, vertically integrated, and commercially produced CharLean Beef (TM), so I have been on both ends of the stick. Better our marginal purebreds become steak rather than breeding stock.
Either way may be profitable IF one controls input costs and it rains at the right time!
Johndykersmd@dykers.com

Anonymous (not verified)
on Nov 14, 2012

The best thing about purbreds is the ability to pick and choose which ones you wish to use in your crossbreeding program. The value of complementarity genetics is arguably more profitable than the given heterosis. The ideal carcass for premiums this date is a 1,000 lb carcass that is yield grade 1 and grades prime. There are crossbred carcasses achieving this benchmark. I would appreciate Troy letting me know what purebred angus genetics can achieve this standard.

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What's My View From The Country?

As a fulltime rancher, opinion contribur Troy Marshall brings a unique perspective on how consumer and political trends affect livestock production.

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Troy Marshall

Troy Marshall is a multi-generational rancher who grew up in Wheatland, WY, and obtained an Equine Science/Animal Science degree from Colorado State University where he competed on both the livestock...

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