One of the primary concerns as the project took root was calving ease.
“If we found that this program adversely affected our calving ease numbers, that would have been the end of the experiment,” says Zeltwanger. But to the contrary, thousands of births in the program have resulted in an average birth weight of 79.6 pounds, with 98.8 percent unassisted calvings.
Of the major continental beef breeds, Limousin has the lowest birthweight, one of the many reasons why it was selected as the preferred breed for the program. “A question we often are asked is ‘Why not Angus?’” says Wulf. “It’s true that Angus cattle are excellent feed converters and have good marbling. But they are lighter muscled. Limousin genetics allow us to offset extremely light muscling in the Jersey breed and produce an animal with excellent feed efficiency, dressing percentage, red meat yield and ribeye size and shape.”
Zeltwanger has learned from immigrant dairymen in the Midwest that crossbreeding for beef animals is a practice that has been employed in Europe for two to three decades, due in part to a similarly shrinking beef cow herd there. “Limousin genetics are used widely there, for the same reasons,” he says.
He adds that conception rate for Limousin semen at Riverview is currently 49 percent on fourth and fifth services, compared to 43 percent for dairy sexed semen on the first three breedings. “One of our initial strategies was to breed problem breeders — those open after three services to sexed semen — to Limousin,” he shares.“We think capturing the heterosis of crossbreeding helps create a more vigorous embryo, plus this approach selects poorer fertility out of the dairy herd. It promotes keeping newer genetics in the herd, as well, because those more challenging breeders often are older cows.”
In the future, many dairies are likely to use genomics to separate the genetics in the herd, as is the case for Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy, Kewaunee, Wis. Chris Szydel, herd manager for the 4,500-cow dairy, says the first cows in the herd were inseminated with Limousin semen in September 2012. The Pagel herd is made up primarily of Holsteins and Holstein-Jersey cross animals, making the breeding strategy a little different decision than for a purebred Jersey herd, but one that was ultimately deemed valuable.
“We don’t want to create more heifers than we need, and this approach allows us to generate the best-quality dairy replacements, while capturing more value from the lower end of the herd,” he shares. Szydel says they expect to capture at least a $50-per-head premium for the crossbred beef calves.