The age of hybrid and composite cattle may be dawning, but education and marketing will determine acceptance say these experts.

So far, crossbreeding in the cattle industry has been like managing a three-ton gorilla in a creep feeder.

On one hand, its low- to no-cost economic returns are too stout to ignore. "The value of heterosis in various crossbreeding and composite systems range from $50 to $100 (Table 1)," says Harlan Ritchie, a distinguished professor of animal science at Michigan State University. "Can we afford to give that up? I think not."

On the other hand, this multi-colored ape can be so tough to manage that many producers have either loused it up or become so frustrated by it that they've sacrificed the potential for a return to the more familiar waters of straightbreeding.

About 80% of U.S. commercial herds use some sort of crossbreeding, Ritchie says. "Of course, a high percentage of that would be willy-nilly bull of the month crossbreeding," he adds, explaining that swapping bull breeds and randomly mixing genetics is not the same thing as systematically matching genetics through a planned system.

In fact, rather than add to the bottom line, Dave Daley, animal science professor at California State University-Chico says, "Our unplanned crossbreeding systems have in some cases made it more difficult to hit environmental and marketing targets."

As an example, Ritchie explains a common breeding scheme, often mistaken for planned crossbreeding, is putting a Continental bull on some English cows. Across breeding seasons and crops of replacements, the percentage of the Continental blood in the females rises to the point the producer figures he needs an English bull. So, the biological type of the calf crops swing from extreme to extreme with everything in between, making it difficult to optimize either production or marketing.

Conversely, a traditional rotational crossbreeding system stabilizes biologic type and heterosis, but it requires added management, more fences to keep herds separate, more bulls and breeding pastures and keen long-term commitment.

"We have heterosis, but we don't have a systematic way to capture the value of genetic diversity," says Daley, who also operates family commercial and seedstock operations with his wife Cindy. "That genetic diversity can be just as important if not more important than heterosis."

He explains using complementary breeds of varying biological types in crossbreeding may offer as much value as the hybrid vigor that results from such a system.

That's where the potential of composite and hybrid cattle - animals comprised of two or more specific breeds combined in exacting percentages - comes in. For the purpose of this article, although the terms "composite" and "hybrid" are often used synonymously, consider a hybrid to contain two breeds and a composite to be an open or closed system that includes three or more breeds.

Furthermore, rather than represent components within a crossbreeding system, hybrids and composites represent genetics that are already blended. As such, they offer genetic and phenotypic stability, along with heterosis and management ease.

"I think there has been recognition with many of the alliances that hybrid cattle, particularly Continental by British hybrids, do more things right more of the time," says Daley. He's explaining pasture, feedlot and carcass performance of these genetics typically run ahead of straightbred cattle or hybrids built with either all English or all Continental breeding.

"So, it's hard to say the commercial industry doesn't need a systematic crossbreeding system, but it has been difficult to accomplish," Daley says.

History On A Flea's Back Of course, the notion of using composites or hybrid cattle is not new. Genetic blends incorporating the Brahman influence became their own breeds long ago; Santa Gertrudis and Beefmaster are examples. But, everywhere else in the industry composites and hybrids have earned mixed interest, ranging from intense to none.

"Certainly in the '80s there was increasing interest in composites. In some cases, that was because the commercial industry wasn't satisfied with what the seedstock industry was providing," says Daley. "Coupled with that was the fact that pork and poultry were kicking our butts with composites used systematically. The question became why can't we do this in the beef industry?"

Indeed, research from the USDA's Meat Animal Research Center, beginning with the 1978 Germplasm Utilization study, wondered the same thing. Besides exploiting high levels of heterosis - although lower levels than with traditional crossbreeding - Keith Gregory's research showed there was no more variation in the progeny of composite genetics than in that of straightbred parents.

Phenotypically, variation is similar, too. That's especially true when the complementary breeds used as composite and hybrid components are similar in biological type.

Yet, even with hard data, Daley says the perception that composites create more variation than purebreds persists, based on qualitative traits - such as hair color - rather than quantitative traits like weaning weight and fertility. "If the composite concept is to move forward, someone is going to have to take the initiative to market it," he says.

The incentive is there. If the industry exploited the true potential of planned crossbreeding, Ritchie says, "I think it would increase efficiency and lower the overall cost of beef production in this country." Moreover, the power of maternal heterosis alone can change ranch-level profitability.

How Do We Goof-Proof It? "What's so difficult about branding a hybrid, documenting the performance and parentage, then offering it to commercial producers in a simple, easy-to-use system?" wonders Don Schiefelbein, executive director of the American Gelbvieh Association (AGA).

In September, AGA and the Red Angus Association of America (RAAA) launched its SmartCross System and began promoting the genetic components of that system - registered Balancers that range from 25-75% Angus and Gelbvieh.

Briefly, Schiefelbein explains the SmartCross system boils common genetic challenges down to simple solutions that allow producers to combine breeds similar in biologic type to harvest high levels of heterosis without suffering generational swings in biotype.

As an example, in a herd of high-percentage English cattle, the system suggests using a Gelbvieh bull to bring the herd toward the 50-50 English X Continental balance it considers ideal. Conversely, the system recommends using Angus bulls on high-percentage Continental cows.

As the cow herd approaches their 50-50 target, the system recommends Balancers to stabilize the herd and fine-tune it for specific environmental and marketing requirements.

The very idea of breed associations promoting crossbreeding, let alone cattle that merely include some of their genetics, seems like blasphemy compared to traditional standards. Schiefelbein explains: "The case for crossbreeding in the beef industry is irrefutable. And, if you're honest as a breed association, the next step in breed evolution is to figure out how your breed fits into a crossbreeding system."

Besides, Schiefelbein points out, AGA members were already registering an increasing number of Gelbvieh X Angus hybrids before the SmartCross System was developed.

"If you look at our registration of hybrids, it's growing exponentially. Today, a majority of our largest Gelbvieh breeders are registering a percentage of their cattle as hybrids," says Schiefelbein.

Likewise, Bob Hough, RAAA executive secretary, says, "We've always embraced crossbreeding because we think it is in the best economic interest of our customers... I don't think a program like the SmartCross system and Balancers takes anything away from our breed. It adds to it."

Rather than sounding the death knell for breeds, Hough points out pure breeds of cattle must be used to establish and maintain composite and hybrid lines.

In the same vein, Jerry Lipsey, executive vice president of the American Simmental Association (ASA), explains, "Large herds in this country learned early on that by utilizing stabilized crossbred cattle (composites) they could maintain the breed type that was most beneficial to their business.

"I think we're just beginning to see the realization from smaller herds that they can use the same technology... Our records database shows a dramatic increase in the proportion of percentage Simmental reported for performance and registration." ASA currently offers the only multi-breed genetic evaluation in North America.

Daley believes that vertically integrated companies and vertically coordinated systems will soon stop worrying about breeds and focus on what's offered by breed composition.

"And, that will likely be composites," he says. "And, if these large-scale operations can't find the seedstock producers to do what they need, they will build their own bulls."

Some Things To Ponder As producers wrap their arms around the potential of composite and hybrid genetics, Daley emphasizes it is no different than making traditional breed, bull and supplier selections.

"From a technical standpoint, this composite and hybrid concept makes sense. But, if someone plans it poorly or uses the wrong parental breeds or the wrong cattle within those breeds, the result is still poor cattle.

"Anyone can say they have a composite," he explains. "Breeders should offer the same documentation that goes with purebreds. If I was really interested in buying hybrids or composites, it's just like buying purebreds - go to a breeder you can trust."

While hybrids make systematic crossbreeding easy, Ritchie cautions producers to limit the amount of inbreeding in the genetics they buy; inbreeding dilutes the level of heterosis. And, Daley urges producers to consider how many suppliers there are of a particular composite or hybrid before they begin a new breeding system.

From a supplier standpoint, Schiefelbein suggests, "You can worry about breed identity if you want. But, if you're not worrying first, second and third about serving your customer, you may end up preserving your identity, although it may not be a positive identity to have at that point."