Practical Crossbreeding for Ontario Herds

Genetic improvement of cattle can only be made in 2 ways:

  1. Selection
  2. Crossbreeding

Commercial herds have the opportunity to use both. Most of the improvement through selection will be made by means of bull selection by seedstock producers and ultimately by commercial producers by their purchases of genetics.

So why is crossbreeding so important? Crossbreeding results in hybrid vigour, which is simply the added performance for any trait above the average of the parents' performance. It is most evident on the traits with low heritability such as fertility and longevity. Compared to straightbred cows, crossbred cows will produce 15% more weaning weight per cow exposed to breeding because of:

  • Higherpregnancy rates
  • Highercalving rate
  • Highercalf survival

On average, crossbred cows will wean an additional 600 lbsof calf in their lifetime compared to staightbredcows. That's the equivalent of getting an extra calf over the life of the cow!

Developing a crossbreeding program can appear to be complicated but there are 2 very simple systems which have application to the average Ontario herd.

Purchase crossbred/hybrid cows and breed them to a terminal bull

An example of this would be Hereford x Red Angus cows bred to a Charolais bull. All of those tan calves are marketed at whatever stage makes the most economic sense for your farm. Any cull cows are replaced with Hereford x Red Angus heifers. Be sure to pick a good bull - in this system he can breed for years. This is an easy system to maximize hybrid vigour as the cow is crossbred and bred to a sire of a 3rd breed. The calf is a 3way cross, so no hybrid vigour is lost, as it would be if the cows were backcrossed to a Hereford or Red Angus bull. This approach has been successfully used in pork production for many years.

The key to a terminal system is being able to consistently source crossbred females that have been carefully selected and managed for optimum performance. It is recommended that you contract a herd for a number of females each year.

Use composite/hybrid bulls

These would be bulls with at least 2 breeds in their parentage, and ideally 4 or more. These multi-breed bulls can add hybrid vigour to your herd to both male and female calves. Most Ontario herds retain their own replacement heifers, and using composite bulls provides that opportunity while at the same time increasing production through crossbreeding. Heifers from composite bulls would simply be mated to composite bulls. A simple example would be to use Simmental X Angus bulls on Simmental X Angus cows - keeping heifers from your own herd and being confident that they will work like their mothers.

The level of hybrid vigour will be lower than the terminal system, but still significantly higher than a purebred system. The amount of hybrid vigour will depend on the number of breeds used in the composite. Research has shown that a 4 breed composite will maintain 75% of the hybrid vigour compared to a 4 breed rotational crossbreeding system.

Photo of crossbred calf
Figure 1. Crossbred calves benefit from hybrid vigour

Bull selection then becomes the critical investment and management decision. There are seedstock producers in Ontario as well as other provinces and states who are producing composite bulls.

Two other important factors need to be considered in a breeding program:

  1. Calf uniformity is always important, no matter if selling weaned calves or finished cattle.
  2. Breed complementarity is very important, so with the selection of individual bulls for your program, a lot more than just the breed of the bull must be evaluated.

Conclusion

It is important for commercial herds to take advantage of the boost in productivity that can be accomplished with crossbreeding systems. For the average small Ontario herd, these two systems are both simple and practical.

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