“The beef industry uses the terms composite and hybrid interchangeably, and sometimes not totally accurately. Either way, they are animals with more than one breed in their pedigree,” says Jack Whittier, Colorado State University Extension beef specialist. 

A hybrid can be any crossbred, whereas a true composite is created using a large population of cattle, with planning – and several generations of selective breeding – to create animals that have the same percentage of a certain mix. It might be ¾ British breeds and ¼ continental. Another composite might be roughly equal percentages of three different breeds. Whatever the mix, the animals are uniform and all contain that specific blend.

The term composite refers to a group of cattle made up of more than two breeds, created in a systematic manner using at least 25 sires from each parent breed, and then making sure inbreeding doesn’t occur.

Thus, a true composite needs a large population of animals for the initial foundation. 

Accepting hybrids as seedstock

Eventually we’ll get past the notion that only purebreds are seedstock. “The swine and poultry industry have already moved that direction. Even the dairy industry is starting to do more crossbreeding; in New Zealand, the most popular dairy cow is a Jersey-Holstein they call Kiwicross. They’ve blended the good traits from both breeds and are also getting heterosis. These cattle work very well in forage-based dairies,” says Jack Whittier, Colorado State University Extension beef specialist. 

You can more readily create animals that excel in a particular environment or management system when you cross certain breeds to get the traits you want. Innovative cattlemen have been doing this for a long time. 

“Historically, we’ve known for decades that crossbreeding can improve profitability, yet crossbreeding has not dominated our industry like it has in other food production industries,” says Wade Shafer, American Simmental Association (ASA) director of performance programs. “One reason is that breed associations have spent a lot of money and effort promoting the concept that seedstock have to be purebred. This idea is deeply entrenched,” he says.

“The chicken and swine industry figured out a long time ago that composites work very effectively as seedstock. Some beef breeders also figured this out, but they were ostracized by breed associations,” Shafer says.

Some of the early composites in this country – Brangus, Santa Gertrudis, Beefmaster, Braford, etc. – gained acceptability because they were promoted as breeds. “Today we also have Simbrah. That’s clearly a composite just like Brangus and Santa Gertrudis, but those were called breeds to give them legitimacy.  Now that veil has lifted, and today it’s ok to have composite seedstock. Yet there are still people within the breed associations and commercial industry who feel composites are inferior,” he says.

“There was a time when a breeder was blackballed for doing something like this,” Whittier says. “The recognition of research data and realities of heterosis have allowed the industry to adapt and accept this better, today.” 

Matt Spangler, University of Nebraska assistant professor in beef cattle quantitative genetics, says the important thing is breeding superior animals, and these often come from crossbred lines. “If the animals can consistently pass on superior genetics, that’s what we want – and this is what makes them seedstock, whether they are purebred or a blend of breeds.”

What about uniformity?

“Research done a couple decades ago by the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) on composites clarified that they do have a role in the beef industry, and that they breed true. Phenotypic variation within composite populations was no different than phenotypic variation in the parent breeds. Three or four decades ago, there was a stigma among cattle producers that composites would have greater variation (less uniformity), but the MARC research did not bear this out,” says Jack Whittier, Colorado State University Extension beef specialist. 

“People were concerned about using composite bulls because they wanted all their calves black-hided,” says Matt Spangler, University of Nebraska assistant professor in beef cattle quantitative genetics. “But we can get homozygous black, homozygous polled composite bulls, and things like color and horns are no longer a concern.”

Heather Smith Thomas is a rancher and freelance writer based in Salmon, ID.