“These half-blood bulls will pull you quicker toward the center of what you're trying to achieve than any other system,” says John Welch, president and CEO of Spade Ranches headquartered at Lubbock, TX.

Welch is referring to an innovative crossbreeding system Spade Ranches began a couple of years ago aimed at stabilizing the genetics in their crossbred cowherd while optimizing heterosis and moderating frame size and milk.

No stranger to using multiple breeds to attain specific goals, Welch explains the ranch — originally purchased in 1889 and still owned by heirs of the same family — began using Hereford and Shorthorn to breed up Longhorn cattle. Over time, it became a straight-bred Hereford program until the late 1960s, when Dub Waldrip, the former long-time Spade Ranches president and CEO, came on board.

Waldrip journeyed to Europe in search of genetics. He brought home Simmental and Brown Swiss to begin systematic, complementary crossbreeding aimed at maximizing heterosis.

Keep in mind, by the time Waldrip entered the picture, the Spades were already a sprawling enterprise. Today, in addition to the original ranch, the organization operates five others. All told, this is an outfit that needs about 1,500 replacements each year.

Powerful simplicity

Eventually, Waldrip employed an aggressive four-breed rotational crossbreeding system using Angus, Hereford, Braunvieh and Simmental. Welch agrees with Waldrip's observation that it was easier to do than explain. Suffice it to say, the end result was a high retention of heterosis — about 93% of an F1 — and a system able to produce its own replacement females.

The downside, according to Welch, was ending up with two distinctly different sets of calves — or four, depending on how you look at it. At any one time, they had two herds 67% English and 33% Continental, and two herds just the opposite.

So, although the herds were stable genetically, the two distinct types of cattle required different management, Welch says.

Aside from having fewer calves of a like phenotype for marketing purposes, there was another hurdle. Waldrip's original intent was to use English breeds to moderate the growth and size of the Continental breeds, and add growth, muscle and yield to the English breeds with the Continental cattle. However, as the English breeds got growthier and heavier-milking, Welch says their moderating influence was lost.

“The net effect was half our cows were too heavy milking and too large framed for our environment,” Welch says. “As a result, we were running into some breed-up problems, particularly with the two-year-olds.”

Waldrip countered this by breeding first-calf heifers to Jersey bulls and weaning the calves at 60 days of age. The heifers returned to estrus like gangbusters, but Welch couldn't make it pencil.

“You had to sell the calves for $150 as roping calves, as opposed to $450 for a weaned calf,” he recalls. “Plus, the frame and milk in them meant there were still breed-back problems in the three-year-olds.”

So Welch wanted to moderate frame and milk and build calves phenotypically similar while maintaining a high level of heterosis. Oh yeah, and if it could be done more simply, that would be fine, too.

That's the basic question he posed to master animal breeders Larry Cundiff and Keith Gregory at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, when he approached them for help engineering a crossbreeding system.

Welch had some ideas of his own, too, based on his experience at his own Colorado ranch. About a dozen years ago, he began building Balancer (Gelbvieh X Angus) bulls with registered stock on both sides of the pedigree before this F1 even had a name. Though he knew he was sacrificing some heterosis, the uniformity of the calf crop and balance of English and Continental genetics won out. Today, his herd and its product is a stable blend of the two breeds.

In the case of Spade Ranches, they put Angus X Gelbvieh bulls on half the herd. The replacements maintained from these are mated to Angus X Simmental bulls. Those replacements are mated to Angus X Gelbvieh bulls, and so on.

The other half of the herd is mated to Angus X Simmental bulls in the first round. Replacements from those are mated to Gelbvieh X Angus, then those replacements to Angus X Simmental, and so on.

“You end up with a cow and calf that are half English and half Continental. Since Simmental and Gelbvieh are similar phenotypically, the calves look very uniform, and you retain 67% heterosis,” Welch explains. “Wherever you begin with this program, within a couple of generations you're already very close to where you want to go.”

Incidentally, Welch seriously considered switching to a terminal crossbreeding program before deciding on his composite system.

“You can moderate cow size and increase weaning weight, but you give away the heterosis in the cows and don't produce your own replacement females, so the genetic fate of your program is in someone else's hands,” he explains.

With the way they're doing it now, Welch also hopes they'll be able to increase cow longevity. Even with the four-breed rotation previously used — and the 93% heterosis — he says it's been difficult to keep cows past about 11 years old. He's hoping moderating frame and milk will help.

“If we could put even an extra year on the cows, it would be economically significant,” he explains.

Moreover, Welch believes low-maintenance cows will be even more necessary over time because of labor.

“We used to say, one man to 300 cows; now it's more like one man to 700,” he explains. “A cow has to be able to take care of herself without a lot of supplement — cows with heterosis, fertility and longevity.”

The same rule applies to the industry overall.

“We're going to wake up as an industry one of these days and find that moving closer to a straight-bred cow is not the thing to do,” Welch says. There's just too much opportunity left on the table when crossbreeding is ignored, he explains. After all, it's with the crossbred female where the chief rewards of heterosis are reaped.

More than just mating breeds

Spade Ranches buys a fair number of bulls, but also builds some of its own via registered stock selected to provide the specifics it needs. For instance, bulls turned out in the rotational system are no larger than a frame score 6, and none will be above breed average for milking ability.

“I believe one of the most important things is to select on both sides of the bull's pedigree,” Welch says. “Like someone told me once, ‘With crossbreeding, if you breed trash to trash, you still get trash; they just live longer.’”

Though Welch and his crew breed some of their own bulls, he believes most producers can achieve the same results without engineering their own, because there's finally a volume of F1 bulls to select from, registered F1 cattle of known genetics and performance on both sides of the pedigree.

Plus, Welch believes registered half-blood bulls allow producers a low-risk way to evaluate increasing heterosis in straight-bred English herds, or those that are nearly so.

“Use a half-blood Continental bull in those situations, and you're going to have a quarter-blood Continental calf,” Welch explains. “You can see if you like the results. If you're more of a risk taker, put a purebred Continental bull on the straight-bred English cows and get to a half-blood cow quicker. Then, you mate those half-blood cows to the half-blood bull.”

Welch emphasizes, however, “Be very selective in buying these bulls; as selective as when you buy purebred bulls, maybe even more so. Make sure the breeds you select for crossbreeding are represented by breeders and associations serious about collecting and providing accurate performance data. You can't throw away all of the performance and genetic evaluation information just because it's a crossbred bull.”

Given the dramatic changes in grain cost that ethanol has wrought in the industry, Welch says crossbreeding's flexibility in quickly adapting to changing economic and production environments is a key at Spade Ranches.

“In any business, you have to identify your competitive advantage,” Welch says. “Ours is flexibility. That was limited with our previous crossbreeding system because of differences in the phenotypic appearance of the calves during years we weren't retaining ownership in them. If I want flexibility in marketing, I have to produce something with appeal to every segment of the market, whether I'm selling my calf crop as calves, yearlings or fed cattle.”