Crossbreeding has been shown by numerous research studies to enhance advantages in growth, longevity and maternal efficiency over straightbred cattle due to the effect of heterosis and has been popular among commercial cattlemen since the 1960s. With the growth of the Angus breed and the success of their marketing program, the term “Angus” has taken on a meaning synonymous with quality with consumers. This fact has changed the commercial landscape with a majority of the American cowherd being Angus-influenced and has led some to theorize that crossbreeding is no longer needed and market demands can be met with just one breed.
At the 2011 North American International Livestock Exposition (NAILE), a white paper entitled, “Crossbreeding: A free lunch but at what cost,” published by Dr. Nevil Speer of Western Kentucky University was presented as part of the American Angus Association’s events. Certified Angus Beef and the American Angus Association have since published articles in industry publications throughout the national pertaining to the paper and have even made an illustrated breakdown of the paper for distribution.
The paper takes issue with the simplistic perspective that extra pounds through heterosis automatically equals a more profitable bottom line. It does this by comparing straight breeding Angus genetics to a “haphazard implementation of crossbreeding.” In this general comparison selecting for Angus bulls that are uniform and excel in traits that the industry desires is more profitable than selecting for a crossbreeding system whose only focus is increased weaning weight.
I grew up in the Angus breed and still own Angus cattle but to draw a conclusion that crossbreeding is not a viable and profitable breeding plan based on this general comparison is simply not accurate. The beef industry is far too complex and diversified in environment, production and marketing systems to find that one breed or breeding plan is the only profitable solution. I believe that Dr. Speer understands this since his statement was aiming to “serve as a meaningful foundation for a deeper, more comprehensive discussion about crossbreeding within the beef industry.” But I also see far too many people are skipping that discussion and move to the simplistic conclusion that crossbreeding holds no value.
The key to the entire system is that breeding must be achieved in a programmed manner using seedstock that are appropriate for the situation. Profit minded cattlemen are aware of the advantages of using outcross genetics and breeds to advance their programs. If this wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t have seen the increase in value for bulls in major Continental breeds in the past year. Growth in natural and NHTC programs are also a driver of a return to crossbreeding since performance, efficiency and yield provided by crossbreeding are needed to maintain profitability when implants, beta agonists and ionophores are removed.
Currently a majority of the US cow herd is Angus based or at least British influenced. Since the early 1990s, Hereford and Angus have made strides in the area of performance, achieving weaning and yearling weights equal to the Continental breeds, and maintained their advantage in marbling characteristics (USMARC GPE Cycle VII). However, these breeds still face problems in the commercial sector. British breeds tend to be early maturing with excess subcutaneous fat, high feed conversion rates and low dressing percentages. This is one of the major drivers for the extensive use of implants and beta agonists in commercial feedyards. This is also why we are seeing a demand from the feeding and processing sectors for designed hybrid feeder cattle to overcome these challenges. For example this summer, Lim-FlexÒ feeder cattle from Sierra Valley Ranch in California and Big Meadows Ranch in Colorado sold at the top of their weight classes at the Superior Livestock Auctions in Winnemucca, NV and Steamboat Springs, CO, respectively.
Tom Brink of JBS Five Rivers Cattle Feeding gave a presentation to the recent Emerging Leaders Academy entitled “What feedyards are looking for in the feeder cattle they buy.” He presented that the industry currently needs steers that will a produce a Choice quality grade carcass that has a Yield Grade less than 3, and to be the most profitable the hot carcass weight needs to be over 850 pounds. Brink then laid out his breed composition pyramid for the ideal feeder steer which includes a 25 to 50 percent Continental influence to meet these demands. A majority of these cattle work in premium programs with an Angus label since a bulk of the Limousin, Simmental, and Gelbvieh breeds are black.
Targeted crossbreeding might be the most useful tool that the beef industry has in the future. We are looking at a growing world population that will require 100 percent more food by the year 2050, of which around 70 percent will have to come through efficiency improving technology. A natural phenomenon that yields the improved fertility, performance, carcass value and longevity of heterosis is not something to be tossed away on a whim.
This is the opportunity for seedstock breeders to educate their commercial customers. It is not crossbreeding that is a problem, but rather the fact that a large number of producers have no breeding plan at all and mate cows without a goal or program. Quality pounds on the plate of the consumer are the key and the breed composition to achieve that is based upon the program’s resources as the determining factor. In order for the beef industry to meet the needs of the world’s dinner tables, producers need to look for the best breeding plan to fit various market needs for high quality, efficiently produced pounds and use heterosis to help push the bar forward.