Contemplating crossbreeding?

Holstein-jersey crosses are often called "rats",  sometimes with affection. Other times not. But love them or hate them, crossbred cows, whether of this combination or many others, are gaining a foothold in the U.S. dairy industry.

Several factors have lead to this change. Some growth is based on scientific research regarding inbreeding and hybrid vigor, while some crossbred cows are on farm simply because producers heard about the concept at a meeting — or because their neighbor tried it.

However, for a crossbreeding program to be successful, it can't be entered into on a whim or because someone expects it to be a miracle cure for a management problem.

Here are six factors to consider before mixing and matching breeds in your herd.

1. Is crossbreeding a fad or a trend?

According to data from the USDA Animal Improvement Programs Laboratory (AIPL) in Beltsville, Md., crossbreds currently make up less than 1 percent of cattle on U.S. dairy farms. That's dramatically different from nearly 20 percent in New Zealand or 5 percent in Australia. The vast majority of U.S. producers select a dairy breed and stick with it.

Crossbreeding is a topic the industry seems to revisit every 10 years or so, says Bob Holterman, vice president of marketing for Accelerated Genetics. "It gains in popularity for a while, then tapers off."

But this time may be different.

Crossbreeding seems to have branched out with more emphasis in larger confinement dairy herds. The renewed interest in crossbreeding is evident in more areas of the country and has drawn more industry support and analysis, confirms Tom Bjelland, vice president of marketing for Genex Cooperative, Inc. "It's not only a grazier with New Zealand management emphasis asking about it."

Kent Weigel, University of Wisconsin extension dairy genetics specialist, agrees. "I don't think all of the current interest is just a fad," he says. "If you look at the reasons why producers switch to crossbreeding — like frustration about poor herd fertility and calving problems — they really want to do something about it. And they see crossbreeding as a solution."

Some predictions even suggest that crossbreeding could become the norm within the next 10 years.

2. What benefits does crossbreeding bring to the table?

Hybrid vigor, or heterosis, is the primary benefit from crossbreeding. Crossbred offspring inherit favorable genes from both parent breeds to improve economic and health traits like milk production, fertility, productive life and calf survival. (See the chart above for more on how hybrid vigor is measured.)

In addition to the genetic improvement from using top AI sires within a breed, producers also can expect a bonus from hybrid vigor, explains Les Hansen, University of Minnesota dairy geneticist. "The bonus from hybrid vigor should be about 6.5 percent for production traits and at least 10 percent for fertility, health and survival traits. This is a free bump."

Crossbreeding also helps control inbreeding, an ever-increasing problem in U.S. dairy cattle. For example, in U.S. Holsteins, inbreeding is increasing at a rate of 0.1 percent each year. While that may not sound like much, heifers born in 2004 already had an average inbreeding rate of 5 percent. To maintain health and fertility traits, researchers recommend that inbreeding shouldn't surpass 6.25 percent. However, with the current average of 5 percent, many individual Holsteins already surpass that threshold.

"Inbreeding has detrimental effects on fertility. In fact, that's where it appears first," notes Hansen. "And poor fertility is one of the major complaints of the dairy industry these days."

3. Will crossbreeding solve reproductive woes?

Crossbreeding can create positive reproductive effects, largely through the benefits of hybrid vigor and inbreeding suppression. But it's not the only way you can improve reproductive performance.

Continuing on-farm research by the University of Minnesota on seven large California dairies reveals some intriguing results. For instance, the average days open for purebred Holsteins in these herds is 150 days. Meanwhile, their Normande-Holstein crossbred counterparts had average days open of 123 days — nearly a full month less. In addition, 21 percent of pure Holsteins were still open at 250 days in milk while only 14 percent of the Normande-Holstein crosses and of the Scandinavian Red-Holstein crosses remained open.

"These results are probably due to improved embryo survival from inbreeding suppression," says Hansen. Initial conception rates didn't necessarily change, but the Holsteins may have lost embryos; therefore, they could not be confirmed pregnant as soon as the crossbred cattle.

Additionally, purebred Holsteins on these dairies had the lowest first-service conception rate — just 22 percent. By comparison, the crossbred animals achieved the following:

  • Normande-Holstein            35 percent first-service CR
  • Montbeliarde-Holstein            31 percent first-service CR.
  • Scandinavian Red-Holstein             30 percent first-service CR.

Remember, crossbreeding will never replace good management. You must still maintain heat detection, follow proper breeding techniques and manage cow health and nutrition.

"Anybody who thinks they no longer have to baby-sit or even monitor their breeding program with crossbreeding is kidding themselves," says Jeff Ziegler, Select Sires Inc., manager, protein/specialty sire programs. "It has good potential, but it doesn't replace management."

And, finally, a crossbreeding program is not a genetic-improvement program. That can only be accomplished within a breed, not between them.

Keep in mind that crossbreeding is only a tool. You have other options at your disposal.

   "The same things people want to fix with crossbreeding can be fixed with a traditional breeding program," says Weigel. Producers can use tools like daughter pregnancy rate, net merit, productive life and maternal calving ease to make reproductive progress in a herd. And, when you monitor pedigrees, you can avoid inbreeding issues.

"They are both very legitimate strategies," he adds. The important thing is to set your breeding goals and stick with them.

4. Is crossbreeding profitable?

It depends. Again, according to USDA-AIPL research, at this point the best crossbred cow has not matched the economic merit of elite Holsteins because of the Holstein breed's higher population and greater range of genetic evaluations.

However, when the researchers factored in cheese-yield pricing, and with all traits considered, profit from Brown Swiss-Holstein crossbreds and Jersey-Holstein crossbreds used in their studies matched or exceeded that of average pure Holsteins. But Holsteins maintained their edge on fluid merit over any of the F1 crosses examined.

In the California research, the crossbreds held their own against pure Holsteins in fat and protein production, with Scandinavian Red-Holstein crosses outperforming the Holsteins by 7 percent. However, the Normande-Holstein crosses produced 6 percent less fat and protein than Holsteins.

Crossbreeding also had an effect on calving ease. First-lactation Holstein cows had the highest incidence of calving difficulty at 9.3 percent and the highest stillbirth rate, 11.8 percent. Scandinavian Red-Holstein crosses fared best, with a 4.7-percent calving difficulty and a 4.9-percent stillbirth rate.

It also should be noted that first-lactation crossbred cows stayed in the herd longer than pure Holsteins. At 305 days postpartum, 14 percent of the Holsteins had left the herd, either through death or culling. Meanwhile, only 7 percent to 8 percent of the crossbreds had left the herd. "I submit that this, in addition to the improved fertility of the crossbred cows, makes them a more profitable option than their pure Holstein herdmates," says Hansen.

5. Should everyone crossbreed?

Absolutely not. If you are pleased with the performance of your herd and have good management in place, there may be no compelling reason to change. Additionally, for crossbreeding to be successful, someone must maintain quality purebred cattle lines.

"Crossbreeding is merely a tool," says Hansen. "By no means should everybody convert to a crossbreeding program. There are valid reasons to do so, but there are just as many valid reasons to not crossbreed. I'm passionate about its potential, but I am not advocating crossbreeding for everyone."

Cautions Holterman, "Holstein cows are the most productive cows in the world, and the genetics in the United States are recognized as the gold standard. If a producer does not like the cattle that result from crossbreeding, it will take generations to recover the Holstein genetics lost."

6. What challenges accompany crossbreeding?

The picture isn't perfect for a crossbred program.

For example, crossbred cattle can be quite different in size from the herd-of-origin. You can end up with a herd with a wide range of variability. This affects grouping, stall use and facilities management. "Stalls and parlors designed for larger Holstein cows may not be easily managed with smaller crossbred animals," notes Holterman.

Crossbreeding also may create nutritional challenges, especially during growth phases.

A survey by Weigel and colleagues, published in the 2003 Journal of Dairy Science, also found that producers using a crossbreeding program face potential revenue losses due to lower average prices for culls and breeding stock, as well as reduced milk production from crossbred cows. Anecdotal evidence suggests market response is changing, but it remains a concern.

But the biggest challenge is selecting the proper breed of bull to use for first-generation crossbred heifers to retain hybrid vigor and keep milk production at maximum levels.

That, as well as other management strategies on how to successfully implement a crossbreeding program, will be addressed in the April issue of Dairy Herd Management.