It's the proverbial no-brainer: increase cattle production with the same inputs or maintain current production with fewer inputs. That's the predictable opportunity provided by heterosis through crossbreeding cattle.

“Crossbreeding is the one viable efficiency that you can utilize that doesn't cost you more, yet provides you more net revenue,” emphasizes Bob Prosser, whose family owns and manages the Bar T Bar Ranch based at Winslow, AZ. “Especially in tough times, it is undeniable that a crossbred female can produce more with fewer inputs. Calf survivability, weaning weight per cow exposed, cow longevity, and pounds produced per dollar of acre of input are all enhanced through the managed use of heterosis.”

Especially as industry input costs increase, Prosser believes sustainability demands taking advantage of the net value of heterosis, especially maternal heterosis.

“If you're not crossbreeding, you're leaving 20-25% of production on the table, and that's really hard to make up in premiums,” says Bob Hough, North American Limousin Foundation (NALF) executive vice president.

Specifically, research conducted at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center indicates heterosis yields 25% more lifetime cow productivity and 38% more cow longevity. All told, crossbred females are estimated to be 30% more productive over their lifetimes, due to increased fertility, calf survivability, increased weaning weights and cow longevity.

Yet, according to the most recent beef survey from the National Animal Health Monitoring Service (NAHMS — Beef 2007-08) of operations with any commercial cattle, only 48.7% had all crossbred cattle. Plus, 54.9% reported that British breeds accounted for the genetic makeup of all or most of their 2007 calf crop. So, there is still lots of untapped potential.

“At a time when all of our input costs have increased dramatically, and the value of cow efficiency is paramount, we continue to find arguments against using crossbreeding primarily centered on the concepts of consistency and marketability,” Dave Daley told attendees of last summer's Beef Improvement Federation annual meeting. Daley is a fifth-generation California cattle producer who is also a professor of animal science at California State University-Chico (CSU-Chico).

“Clearly, there are specific instances in the commercial cattle sector where heterosis has been used effectively. I would argue, however, that the potential is far from realized. In fact, in the past few years, we seem to have drifted away from crossbreeding to more traditional straightbred programs that intend to focus on phenotypic consistency and end product, but not necessarily on profitability,” he says.

That could be changing, though.

Real-world proof

A few years back, CSU-Chico joined forces with Lacey Livestock at Paso Robles, CA; the American Hereford Association; and California-based Harris Ranch Beef Co. and Harris Feeding Co. to identify the value of crossbreeding in integrated production systems. In a nutshell, 600 of Lacey's predominately black Angus commercial cows were bred to either Angus bulls — what had been the norm for them — or to Hereford bulls. This is an integrated system with ownership retained through the feedlot and marketed into the Harris Ranch branded-beef program.

Through the first year of the multiyear study, the crossbred calves had a $78/head advantage, compared to their straightbred peers (Table 1). There was a slight advantage to the crossbred ($10.80/head) for increased weaning weight, but most of it came through feedlot and carcass performance.

According to Daley and his CSU colleague Sean Earley, authors of the preliminary report, “One major advantage in the crossbred cattle (Hereford-sired) was in morbidity/mortality, a lowly heritable trait that would be expected to demonstrate significant heterosis. However, even without inclusion of death loss into the feedlot closeouts, the Hereford-sired group still had a definite advantage in average daily gain, dry-matter feed conversion and, ultimately, cost of gain compared to the Angus-sired group, regardless of whether the mortality was calculated into the comparison or not.

“The advantage in quality grade of the Angus-sired group partially offset the economic advantage in feedlot performance of the Hereford-sired group. However, total profitability still favored the Hereford-sired pen and was most obvious at the feedlot phase of the production cycle.”

Keep in mind, the first year of this study reflects only differences from direct heterosis in terminal calves — the heterosis in the calves. Subsequent years will shed light on differences in reproductive performance of replacement heifers, and ultimately differences in maternal heterosis of crossbred cows compared to their purebred counterparts.

Management convenience

Of course, there are rational reasons some producers choose to straight-breed rather than crossbreed.

For one thing, heterosis is tough to see or measure. In fact, Daley believes the primary impediment to crossbreeding has been the industry's penchant to focus upon measuring production outputs rather than inputs.

“The value in crossbreeding is often underestimated because it has a small positive effect on many different traits that are lowly heritable and difficult to measure,” Daley explains. “Frequently, maternal heterosis (the value of the crossbred cow) is about decreasing inputs as much as it is about increasing output. For example, longevity, livability and disease resistance are traits that impact the input side of the equation as much as the output.”

Another roadblock some producers encounter to crossbreeding is their long memories.

When Continental breeds were introduced to the U.S., primarily in the 1960s and '70s, and the application of crossbreeding was new in the business, selection and mating decisions were often haphazard. There were some classic wrecks that are remembered and retold as if they occurred yesterday. Realities then have become the myths of today. As an example, based on genetic trend, Angus cattle have as much growth today as Simmental (see “Not Your Daddy's Genes,” page 4) and the mature size to match. Many producers, though, would tell you the opposite must be true.

Finally, a major reason producers ignore crossbreeding is the simple fact that traditional, effective crossbreeding systems are complicated. They demand intensive, disciplined management, not to mention multiple breeding pastures and herds.

“Traditional rotational crossbreeding systems using purebred sires are too cumbersome for most producers,” says Wade Shafer, American Simmental Association (ASA) director of performance programs. “Using purebred sires for rotational crossbreeding allows you to maximize heterosis, but it increases management difficulty and reduces your ability to leverage breed complementarity.”

Lure of composites

That's one reason more commercial producers are exploiting heterosis via hybrid and composites.

“You lose some heterosis when you use composites, compared to traditional crossbreeding systems using purebred sires, but some heterosis is a lot better than no heterosis, which is what has been happening,” Shafer says.

Hybrids also make it easier to exploit breed complementarity — leveraging breed differences to optimize genotype.

When using breeds of diverse genotypes in traditional crossbreeding systems to maximize complementarity, Shafer explains that differences in breed proportion among the progeny lessens uniformity. So, producers tend to use genotypically similar cattle, which decreases leverage potential. With composites, though, uniformity can be maintained while exploiting complementarity.

More than anything, composites and hybrids make utilizing heterosis as convenient as straight-breeding. In fact, hybrid and composite cattle are the fastest-growing segment of seedstock production for several breeds.

Consider that Balancers — Gelbvieh x Angus — represented 53% of all registrations at the American Gelbvieh Association (AGA) for fiscal year 2008-09. That's a 20% increase in Balancer registrations since fiscal year 2005, says Frank Padilla, AGA director of breed promotion.

Similarly, Shafer says the number of hybrid cattle added to the ASA database from herds enrolled in that organization's performance program more than doubled since fiscal year 2003 to 31,369 head.

“A lot of commercial producers are pretty straightbred Angus and are looking back at crossbreeding and heterosis,” Hough says. “The ideal in a lot of production environments will be one-quarter to one-half Continental — one-quarter in a lot of environments — and that will take breeding to the hybrid cattle. You need to tailor cattle to fit markets, too. For mainstream markets, one-half Continental by one-half English are ideal; for premium Choice markets, the ideal is one-quarter Continental by three-quarters English.”

“I think the commercial cattle industry is rediscovering crossbreeding because of economics,” Padilla says. “Crossbreeding is probably the simplest, most predictable way to increase efficiency, particularly in this high-cost environment.”

For that matter, Padilla points out hybrid and crossbred bulls themselves tend to have more longevity because of the direct heterosis they possess.

Increased documentation and genetic evaluation of hybrid and composite cattle through breed registries have also helped producers gain more comfort in using them.

“Breed complementarity and heterosis are the main things. And, now we have genetic predictions on a wide range of traits for both purebreds and hybrids,” Hough says. Though the use of hybrids and composite seedstock is growing, he also believes use of traditional crossbreeding is increasing, as well.

Bottom line, Shafer says, “I think the future of crossbreeding is tied to the use of hybrid and composite seedstock. We're seeing momentum in that direction — use of composites for crossbreeding — and when you consider that our meat-animal competitors use only composites in their breeding systems, the handwriting is on the wall.”

“The commercial beef business is faced with a very difficult challenge to maintain long-term profitability and viability. There are countless battles (unrelated to cattle breeding) in order to survive and be profitable in the long term,” Daley explains.

“We need to keep cattle breeding simple. We have wonderful within-breed selection tools (EPDs). We have the ability to capitalize on breed differences and capture both heterosis and breed complementarity through crossbreeding. Designing simple, long-term breeding programs to capture direct and maternal heterosis, while capitalizing on maternal and terminal lines, is a significant step in attempting to maximize sustained profit,” he adds.

Table 1. Preliminary economic summary — Impacts of crossbreeding on profitability in vertically coordinated beef industry marketing systems*
Traits Angus-sired Hereford-sired
Ranch $10.80
Backgrounding $14.10
Pre-Feedlot $24.90
Feedlot $86.10
Carcass $33.27
Feedlot and Carcass $52.83
Net Value Difference $77.73

*Study conducted by Dave Daley and Sean Earley, California State University-Chico; cooperators are Lacey Livestock, CA; American Hereford Association; Harris Feeding Co.; Harris Ranch Beef Co.