Breaking Down the Complexities of Crossbreeding

Published on Thu, 08/01/2019 - 12:51pm

 Breaking Down the Complexities of Crossbreeding.

 By Bruce Derksen.

 Being a productive livestock producer in today’s beef industry is tough.  To consistently be successful, commercial cow calf operators are faced with the challenge of controlling costs of production while optimizing economically important traits in their animals.  It’s hard to find systems that fit with both goals.  A fundamental way to make this reality is through crossbreeding, which can boost important traits like reproduction, growth, maternal ability, carcass quality and yield.  But each operation differs in environment, breeding, feeding objectives and targeted markets.

Crossbreeding is both complex and simple at the same time.  Heterosis and complimentary strengths of various breeds are the two standard reasons given why a producer should use the system.  In simple terms, heterosis is the hybrid vigor of the crossbred animal compared to the average of straight bred parents in any given trait.  Amounts of heterosis realized vary for given traits and are inversely related to heritability, being higher in qualities like fertility, liveability and longevity and lower in milk production, weight gain, feed efficiency and frame size.
Complimentary benefits of crossbreeding are the ability to take advantage of the strengths of two or more breeds in the production of offspring with optimum levels of performance in several traits.  Evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of potential breeds and selecting those that can be complimentary of each other should result in animals that maintain the desired and productive qualities of the breeds.
These two reasons are the complex part, but to understand them better, practical thinking should come into play.
Before a producer chooses a crossbreeding program, goals need to be established to optimize the advantages of heterosis and breed combinations.  It is important to realistically define the production levels in the current herd as they pertain to the economically important traits.  Where are those traits in relation to present markets, environment and management and where do they need to end up to meet the requirements hoped for?
By determining where an operation is and where it needs to be, proper breeding objectives can be determined.  Some resources may be drawn from the current herd and some will need to be introduced from outside sources.  Adding a new breed will trigger a large shift in the genetics of the herd that will need to be reviewed and adjusted on an on-going basis.
Once goals are established, experts warn of becoming overly caught up in the intricacies of heterosis and complimentary advantages.
Joe Paschal, Texas AgriLife Extension beef specialist in Corpus Christie had this to say when producers asked why they should use crossbreeding.  “I say it’s because I get to choose the breeds I want.  Breeds can be combined to fit multiple market situations and environments.  Heterosis is the icing on the cake.  But breeds are what determine the taste of the cake.”
Producers have a free hand as they research the strengths of multiple breeds to deliver offspring with overall superior performance in numerous traits.  Paschal warns that when considering these traits, selection goals need to be aimed at reaching optimum, not maximum.  Questions of all desired outcomes such as milk production, calving ease, carcass composition, environmental stress tolerance and frame size need to be asked and answered.  “Remember, selection should be a goal that once you get there, you stop and maintain it.  We’re not going to improve indefinitely.  Selection needs to be a destination.  If you can’t tell what’s in them, there’s a good chance they’re mongrelized.”  He added that those types of cattle seldom improve the taste of the cake, much less the icing.
He emphasized the importance of never losing sight of the destination- greater profitability.  Reached by matching a producer’s animals to their environment and making use of heterosis and complimentary advantages through a well-planned crossbreeding system.  “Superior animals are those with greater profitability.  So, we’re not selecting for bigger animals, more productive animals, we’re selecting for animals with more profit,” Paschal said.
Crossbreeding programs are not a quick fix but take years to achieve.  A long term and realistic plan needs to be established and maintained.  When it makes sense for a producer’s operation, all available benefits can be realized including heterosis and complimentary advantages.  And most of all, profit.