Crossbreeding animals to potentially increase performance is nothing new in the livestock world, and dairy production is no exception.
According to experts from Oklahoma State University and the University of Missouri Extension, crossbreeds have found a spot in the dairy industry, and producers seem to be happy with the results.
Dr. Sara Place, associate professor of animal science at Oklahoma State University, said crossbreeding of dairy animals has become popular for many commercial producers.
“It’s really an effort to combine some of the traits of the different breeds,” she said, adding that the Jersey/Holstein cross appears to be the most popular at this time. “Like any crossbreeding situation, you are looking for that heterosis impact.”
There are several benefits that can be realized through a well-managed crossbreeding program.
Traits with low heritability tend to be the traits that can be most easily and quickly improved by heterosis through crossbreeding. Fertility is one of these traits.
“Data from Minnesota indicates fewer days open for first lactation crossbreds compared to pure Holsteins,” Ted Probert, University of Missouri Dairy Specialist said. “Fertility benefits may represent one of the greatest advantages of crossbreeding for seasonal pasture-based herds but can also be a plus for conventional operations.”
Moderation of body size
U.S. dairy cows, particularly Holsteins, have increased in body size during the past several decades.
Place said the crosses tend to be a little smaller framed.
“A lot of producers are looking for a smaller animal with good feet and legs, and animals that are good at converting feed into milk,” Place said. “Also, maybe facilities are a little older, and they don’t want to remodel their barn, so they want a little smaller animal. Sometimes our modern Holsteins get a little too big for older facilities, so this is a way around that.”
Breeding Holstein heifers to a smaller breed sire, Place said, can also reduce calving issues.
Increase milk solids
The value of this benefit varies depending on the pricing of butterfat and protein in various milk markets, but most producers will receive at least some increase in price with added solids.
While crosses don’t typically yield as much milk as a purebred Holstein, Place said a Jersey/Holstein cross brings an increase in milk components.
“Your are trying to optimize the animal you have in that system,” Place said.
Heterosis realized from crossbreeding results in improved survival of F1 cows through first lactation and into second lactation compared to straight Holsteins. Calf survival is also favorably influenced through crossbreeding.
“Most producers understand and appreciate the potential for improved performance from crossbred offspring produced by two purebred parents (F1s),” Probert explained. “Many, though, worry about how to mate F1s to continue the advantages of hybrid vigor into succeeding generations. Sustaining a successful crossbreeding program requires a plan and the commitment to follow it.”
Two crossbreeding systems most commonly used in dairy herds are the two-breed rotation and the three-breed rotation.
“In the two-breed system, F1 offspring are mated back to one of the original parent breeds, and mating sires for succeeding generations are alternated between the two breeds,” Probert said. “This system will sustain 67 percent of the hybrid vigor possessed by the original F1 generation.”
The three-breed rotational crossbreeding system uses three breeds. Probert said it starts with a two-breed F1 female and mates the F1 to a third breed. The rotation continues, alternating among sires of the three breeds for each subsequent generation. Under this system, 86 percent of full heterosis will be maintained.
“At the end of the day, if you get a three-way cross, that is where you are going to maximize that hybrid vigor, that heterosis,” Place said. “The breeds you chose all depends on the goals of the farm. It could be a Jersey/Holstein and another breed, but it just depends on what you are wanting out of it. Be it beef cattle production or dairy cattle, a three-way cross is usually going to maximize that heterosis in that situation.”
Place added that European dairy breeds, such as the Scandinavian Red and other “Continental cattle” are often found as the third cross in a three-way cross.
“People like hybrid vigor, but all that means is that the offspring is just going to perform better than what you would expect the average to be,” she said. “If your goal is just pounds of milk produced, pounds of protein, pounds of fat, and you are crossing with a lower producing breed, you are going to give up milk production. It really depends on the goals of the dairy.”
Crossbreeding does not diminish the importance of good sire selection, Probert added.
“Rather, crossbreeding should be viewed as a step toward enhancing the breeding value of highly selected sires,” he said. “Matings to sires with marginal genetic merit will produce offspring with marginal genetic merit whether the animals are purebreds or crossbreds.”
“You don’t want to take just some random sire,” she said. “You want to look at the merit of that sire, and pay attention to all of those aspects.”