No one can successfully argue against the production and cost advantages offered through direct and maternal heterosis. The science behind, and the experience with, strategic, disciplined, complementary crossbreeding programs are too broad and predictable.
Crossbred cows remain in the herd 1.3 more years longer than their straight-bred counterparts and yield 30% more lifetime productivity. What’s more, crossbred cows have crossbred calves that serve up 10%-20% more weaning weight than their straight-bred peers. And those are just some of the benefits.
It’s equally hard to argue that crossbreeding is free of any opportunity cost. This includes the extra management savvy and discipline needed, or the phenotypic and genetic inconsistency that results from haphazard application.
One thing is certain. More commercial producers have adopted straight-breeding strategies during the past 15 years. According to the most recent survey data from the National Animal Health Monitoring System, 45% of commercial producers say their herds are a combination of no more than two breeds.
In a 2010 BEEF magazine survey of readers, nearly half of all respondents classified the genetic composition of their cowherd as being high-percentage or straight British.
“The Angus breed now accounts for about 70% or more of the genetics in the nation’s commercial beef production system, leaving the remainder of the herd mix to be divvied up among other breeds,” says Nevil Speer, a Western Kentucky University professor of animal science and director of its Master of Arts Leadership Dynamics Program.
In fact, registrations through the American Angus Association are about five times that of the second-largest breed registry. Possible reasons for this trend away from utilizing the power of heterosis are the subject of a recent, insightful white paper by Speer, funded by Certified Angus Beef® (CAB®).
Upfront, Speer doesn’t argue for crossbreeding or straight-breeding; nor does he endorse Angus cattle or any other breed. Instead, he reviewed and interpreted both science and industry trends. Developing the white paper included commercial and seedstock producers, academicians, cattle feeders and those involved in the packing industry.
Likewise, Mark McCully, CAB director of supply development, emphasizes, “Crossbreeding done well, works; and straight breeding done well, works, too. We’ve got two systems that work. Rather than argue one system over the other, we need to focus on what it takes to make each system successful.”
Perceptions about cost
“The route to ranch profitability is complex and filtered by individuals,” Speer says. “Incremental changes in marketing, capital and cost management, and increasingly accurate genetic tools, help explain why long-established research that supports crossbreeding has been trumped in many scenarios where bottom-line profits are the focus.”
If you happen to be a crossbreeding proponent, keep your pony hobbled.
When crossbreeding really took hold in the 1960s and 1970s, it was by matching traditional English breeds with newfangled Continental breeds. Increased weaning weights with that first cross were staggering. Though weight, arguably, still pulls the industry wagon, Speer says economic premiums associated with marketing uniform groups of cattle that fit the tighter carcass specifications of added-value carcass programs (like CAB) have led some to focus less on weight than end-product value.
“In addition, the consolidated, larger operations tend to move from strictly a weigh-up focus to more specified marketing targets,” Speer says. “The ability to fill a semitrailer leads to more desire for uniformity, and still more interest in value-added marketing through retained ownership. In those scenarios, weight and value are not mutually exclusive.”
Along the way, breeds have become more like one another, using breed genetic trends as the barometer. So, there’s less selection differential, and less opportunity for exploiting breed complementary, which is crossbreeding’s other primary benefit.
Given the growing homogeneity of breeds, some producers even question whether mating parents of different breeds results in as much heterosis as there used to be.
For the record, geneticists say reduced selection differential should not be confused with genetic heterozygosity, which continues to exist and offers heterosis its phenotypic punch. However, these same geneticists say there’s a need for breed-specific estimates of heterosis, something the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, NE, is currently developing.
Crossbreeding isn't equal
Confusion deepens when you throw in the increased use of hybrid bulls. At the risk of oversimplification, if you breed a straight-bred Angus commercial female to a hybrid bull that is half Angus, the resulting calf will be 75% Angus. You won’t see as much heterosis or breed differential in the calves as when mating parents of two different breeds.
Take that a step further. Suppose you breed a half-blood Angus X Simmental cow to a half-blood Angus X Simmental bull. The resulting calves (F 2 generation) will be more variable in phenotype because the calves have the chance to inherit a wider variety of genes for particular traits than their F 1 generation parents.
Some producers view the preceding examples as equivalent – crossbreeding that should yield the same level of heterosis and uniformity – though they are different. That’s before considering the genetic merit of the parents involved in the mating.
As pointed out at a follow-up meeting of the white-paper group in February, if you breed two inferior parents of different breeds together, there’s no reason to expect heterosis to transform the proverbial sow’s ear into a silk purse. Compared to a calf resulting from two superior parents of the same breed, the crossbred will likely appear to be a failure.
This gets at a couple of other reasons why so many commercial producers might ignore or abandon crossbreeding.
Time and convenience are the first concerns. Introducing and managing heterosis at its highest levels requires added time, resources and discipline. As fewer cow-calf producers count on their herds for their primary annual income, Speer says some place more value on their time for other enterprises than benefits derived from heterosis.
The other factor that’s always made crossbreeding hard for some to consider is the simple fact that it’s hard to see. What are termed qualitative traits – coat color, body type and such – are easy to eyeball. But the impact of heterosis on additive traits like fertility and reproduction – where much of the heterosis benefit lies – can only be seen over time, with the use of meticulous records that benchmark and track herd progress.
“Some of the most profitable beef cattle ranches operate well-managed cowherds that systematically implement crossbreeding,” Speer says. “Conversely, some of the least profitable try to practice crossbreeding but, without sufficient management and marketing focus, often fail to beat simpler, straight-bred alternatives.”
You can find the white paper at http://cabpartners.com.