Cattle and the advantages of crossbreeding


CATTLE breeding experts continue to urge farmers to crossbreed pure dairy bulls with ‘Hard MaShona’ African cattle to produce higher quantities of milk and special grade beef.
Although these crossbred cows can produce better quality milk and meat as well as being more drought resistant, most farmers will find it financially challenging to adopt the suggested measures given the high cost of purchasing a dairy bull (a bull weighing 500kg normally costs between US$500 and US$800).
The advantages of crossbreeding are well-documented and can have a big impact on a cattle producer’s net return.
According to the USDA Cattle Inventory Report, retained heifer numbers were up 1,4 percent in 2012.
The increase shows an attempt at cattle herd expansion. However, the cost of replacement females for a cow-calf operation is significant.
Selecting replacement females is challenging, especially when you consider that decisions made today will impact your future cattle husbandry operation for many years.
As commercial cow-calf producers evaluate the opportunity to expand, it is important to review the value of cross-breeding.
As we have already discussed, heterosis (hybrid vigour) and breed compatibility are the primary benefits realised from a properly planned crossbreeding programme.
Heterosis is the increase in performance or function above what is expected based on the parents of the offspring.
Breed compatibility allows a livestock breeder to capitalise on the strengths of different breeds because no single breed excels at all of the traits that affect profitability.
Maternal heterosis is the advantage realised by using a crossbred cow versus a straight-bred cow.
Research has shown that crossbred cows can have many advantages, including a six percent higher calving rate, a four percent higher calf survival rate, an eight percent increase in efficiency, a 38 percent increase in longevity and a 23 percent increase in lifetime productivity.
These advantages will be optimised when the breeds and individuals selected to create the cross-bred cow fit the farmers resources and goals.
Another advantage of crossbreeding is the opportunity to capitalise on breed complementarity.
This involves evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of potential breeds and selecting those that complement each other.
The result should be an animal that has the best traits of those breeds.
Common examples include the (Angus x Hereford), Brangus (Angus x Brahman) and Sim Angus (Simmental x Angus), as well as many other combinations.
The traits that are most important to you should be based on the goals of your cattle operation.
Direct heterosis is the benefit observed in a crossbred calf.
On average, these advantages include a four percent increase in calf survival, a five percent increase in weaning weight and a six percent increase in post-weaning gain.
These effects, however, are greatly influenced by breed.
The effect of breed on the results of a crossbreeding programme can be significant.
Estimated in a recent study were both direct and maternal effects based on published crossbreeding studies.
Their results showed the direct effect of breed can influence weaning weight by more than 30kg and post-weaning gain by more than 39kg.
In addition, the maternal effect of breed can influence weaning weight more than 40kg.
Perhaps the easiest way to capture maternal heterosis is to identify the type of female you desire and buy her from a reliable, off-farm source.
Depending on what the cattle farmer is looking for, this can be difficult.
In addition, replacement heifers that are known for their quality and performance will command a high price.
Alternatively, many cattle producers retain their own heifers as replacements.
According to the USDA, 83 percent of replacement heifers are raised on the farmstead where they will calve.
It is important to identify the cow type and breeds that best fit your forage resources and feed inputs.
Select breeds that complement each other and are consistent with your production goals and choose the breed or breed crosses that will produce a calf acceptable to your marketing endpoint.
This process can get complicated, but does not need to be.
It will be much easier to maintain a crossbreeding programme if it is simple.
Keep in mind that considerable variability exists within breeds; there is a big difference between maximum and optimum.
Also consider associated costs like increased cow size and milk production.
The optimum system to produce replacement heifers will usually result in less than optimal steer mates and this should be considered when evaluating the economics and accounts of developing your own females.
If you are purchasing females of unknown breeding or decide to use straight-bred females, you can still capture some of the benefits of heterosis.
Identify what animal will produce the greatest profit at your marketing endpoint.
For many producers, the primary variable to consider is calf weight.
In some of the southern states in the US, black-and smoke-coloured feeder calves usually receive the highest price at auction barns.
Conversely, calves with significant Brahman influence, horns or red-coloured hides are often discounted.
Identify the breed or breeds of bulls that will produce a desirable calf when mated to your females.
Again, remember that variation exists within breeds.
Select bulls that excel in the traits of economic importance to you.
The goal of most commercial cow-calf producers is to increase profitability.
Determine your market endpoint and work backward to determine the type of animals that will produce the most profit within the constraints of your resources.
Using crossbreeding correctly can have a significant impact on your net return.
Ensure that raising your own heifers makes economic sense and then develop a breeding plan that will allow you to capture heterosis for maximum profit.
Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Art Theory and Philosophy and a Doctorate in Business Administration and Post-Colonial Heritage Studies. He is a writer, lecturer, musician, art critic, practising artist and corporate image consultant. For views and comments, e-mail:

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