Missouri Dairy Business Update Commercial Agriculture
Volume 4, Number 8
August 2004

A New Look at Crossbreeding in Dairy Cattle
By Ted Probert, Regional Dairy Specialist


In times past most of the U.S. dairy industry has been of the opinion that crossbreeding of dairy cattle yielded little benefit and possibly even decreased the usefulness of F1 (crossbred) cows compared to purebreds. Because of this long held belief, crossbreeding of dairy cattle has received little serious attention – that is until recently. The past few years, however, have seen a resurgence of interest in the intentional mixing of our established dairy breeds.

Why have we been reluctant to crossbreed in the past while the beef, swine, and poultry industries have done so to their advantage for years? During recent decades, dairy economics in the U.S. have favored the production of large volumes of milk over high solids milk in most markets, hence the popularity of the Holstein breed. The search for dairy breeds whose crosses could compete with Holsteins for milk yields was very difficult. Therefore, on commercial dairies Holsteins prevailed. Crosses of Holsteins with other dairy breeds almost assured a lowered milk yield.

So why the current interest in crossbreeding? There are a number of reasons. First of all we must realize that all of our dairy breeds have been very successful at improving milk yields through a combination of genetic selection and improved management. Accompanying this jump in productivity are some not so admirable tendencies, among them declining fertility, increased health problems, and shortened length of productive life as compared to just a few years back. Heterosis (hybrid vigor) which is realized through crossbreeding has successfully addressed these problems in other livestock enterprises and should do so in dairy cattle also. Significant improvements in health and reproduction can be worth more to a dairy’s bottom line than a few extra pounds of milk.

Secondly, milk pricing has changed. In many areas solids production receives more emphasis than fluid in pricing formulas. This trend lessens the advantage in the market place previously held by purebred Holsteins.

Third, inbreeding within our breeds has increased with time. This trend has the potential to magnify trends of lowered health and fertility.

Additionally, new breeds from Europe have recently been introduced to the U.S. and are being included in crossbreeding programs on some farms. These new breeds include the Normande from France, the Montbeliarde, also from France, and the Scandinavian Red. This breed is actually comprised of two sub-populations – the Swedish Red and the Norwegian Red. These breeds offer new genetic material for crossbreeding. They have been selected in their countries of origin not only for production traits, but also for health and fertility.

Can crossbreeding address some of the problems in the U.S dairy herd that were previously identified? Recent research, as well as observations from producers who have tried crossbreeding, suggest that it can. Results of some of this research are summarized below.

University of Minnesota

The University of Minnesota has conducted research in seven large commercial dairies in California to look at performance differences between Holsteins and Holstein crosses with the following breeds: Normande, Montbeliarde, Scandinavian Red, Jersey, and Brown Swiss. Their findings include:

- Normande X Hol., Montbeliarde X Hol., and Scandinavian Red X Hol. dams
had significantly less calving difficulties than pure Holsteins.

- Jersey and Scandinavian sired calves had significantly less calving difficulty
than calves sired by other breeds.

- Significantly fewer stillbirths occurred from Normande X Hol., Scandinavian X
Hol., and Montbeliarde X Hol. dams than from pure Holsteins.

- Jersey and Scandinavian sired calves had fewer stillbirths than those sired by
Holsteins.

- In a separate trial including only Holsteins and Normande X Hol. crosses, the
crossbreds had a higher 1st service conception, fewer days open, fewer services
per conception, and a shorter calving interval from 1st to 2nd calving than did
Holsteins.

Dairy Production Research Centre – Ireland

Found that Norwegian Red, Montbeliarde X Hol., and Normande X Hol. were all
Superior to pure Holsteins for

- Pregnancy rates on first service
- Pregnancy rates at 42 days post-breeding
- Calving to conception interval

Animal Improvement Programs Laboratory, USDA

Reported that crossbred cows, particularly Jersey cross cows have a significant advantage over their purebred parents for daughter fertility through evaluation of daughter pregnancy rates of all US dairy breeds.

Not all the questions have been answered concerning dairy cross-breeding, particularly with the new breeds. But, considering the long-standing principles of heterosis in beef cattle and other species, plus recent research findings, it appears that crossbreeding of dairy cattle should have merit for U.S. producers. Benefits in health and reproduction as well as solids yield without a significant sacrifice in milk yield should be possible with appropriate breed selection for crossing. It is important to remember that crossbreeding will not take the place of careful attention to sire selection. Regardless of the mating system employed sires should be screened and selected for their superiority in transmitting the traits of importance to the accomplishment of a herd’s breeding goals.


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