“A large number of the industry's cattle are still designed wrong genetically. Too many have the wrong breed composition to succeed in the feedlot and satisfy the consumer,” says Tom Brink.

The senior vice president of cattle ownership and risk management for Five Rivers Ranch Cattle Feeding, LLC, the largest cattle-feeding organization in the world, says his outfit wants cattle that are 50-75% Angus, up to 50% Continental, with no more than 25% Bos indicus or other breeds included. Outside of niche markets, that's similar to how other feeders describe the preferred cattle type.

“You'll be paid more for avoiding breed composition problems in your cattle,” Brink says. He believes ineffective breed composition in cattle costs the industry millions of dollars, as well as global beef market competitiveness. That's just on the output side of the fence.

Heterosis and input efficiency

Brink made these observations at the recent Beef Improvement Federation meeting. At the same meeting, Dave Daley, California State University-Chico professor of animal science, observed that, when it comes to embracing and exploiting the power of crossbreeding, “We've ignored it, we've forgotten it; as an industry we've done a lousy job of it.”

He's talking about direct heterosis — the superiority of crossbred progeny compared to the average of their parents — but especially maternal heterosis — increased performance of progeny from a crossbred cow.

Sure, there are lots of non-purebred cattle in the commercial industry, but relatively few are estimated to be the product of systematic, complementary crossbreeding aimed at managing heterosis. Instead, many are the by-product of changing breed choice over time.

“I don't know how I can ignore it in a competitive business,” Daley says. He's referring to some of the gains possible with heterosis — 17% more calves, 25.3% more weaning weight and a 38% longer productive lifetime.

Perhaps the focus on breed selection is part of the problem. As Daley says, crossbreeding isn't about which breeds are utilized; it's matching genetic diversity to the environment.

Likewise, the focus within breeds may be as responsible. Rather than embrace genetic diversity, the past two decades have seen breeds attempting to become more like one another.

High-yielding, low-marbling breeds have tried to build marbling, and high-marbling, low-yielding breeds have strived to add muscle.

In other words, too many breeds continue trying to be all things for all people, rather than indispensable components of complementary crossbreeding systems aimed at maximizing efficiency.

Application ease is critical

Of course, it's not like crossbreeding has been easy to manage. The classical crossbreeding systems are designed to maximize heterosis, but often have little practical value due to management constraints, Daley says.

The need for convenient application of crossbreeding is surely a key reason sales of registered hybrid and composite cattle have surged the past few years. More specifically, Daley cites these reasons for the industry's shunning of crossbreeding:

  • A cultural bias that purebreds are better.

  • A predilection for single-trait selection and a focus on bigger is better.

  • Measuring outputs, we've decided, is more meaningful than measuring inputs, and easier. “As a commercial producer, much of what I need to know is input-driven,” Daley says.

  • Uniform phenotype for qualitative traits offers a real and distinct advantage that's difficult to ignore.

  • Heterosis is difficult to visualize, and even more difficult to measure.

  • Complicated crossbreeding systems have been presented as normal in an industry of diverse cattle operations and countless small herds.

  • Our penchant for telling people how to modify their environments in order to get healthier calves, higher percent calf crop and more total pounds.

  • A historically active resistance to crossbreeding from some traditional marketing outlets, some producers and some cattle breed associations.

  • Inappropriate use of breed diversity. It's not about breed, but where we put it to work. That's true within breeds, too.

  • Our industry and university systems have focused on single-trait measurements for more than 50 years; we haven't focused on or measured profitability.

“If you're selling purebred cattle to commercial producers and telling them they need to straight-breed, you're doing them a disservice,” Daley says.

Moreover, if you're not providing buyers the genetic mix they covet, you're costing yourself money.

Brink says calf value is built in steps. First, comes breed composition to obtain at least market price. Combine that with certified immunity and the door opens to grid premiums. Add source and process verification to the mix, and branded beef premiums are possible.