|Missouri Dairy Business Update|
|Volume 4, Number 8|
By Ted Probert, Regional Dairy Specialist
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
- Jersey and Scandinavian sired calves had significantly
less calving difficulty
- Significantly fewer stillbirths occurred from
Normande X Hol., Scandinavian X
- Jersey and Scandinavian sired calves had fewer
stillbirths than those sired by
- In a separate trial including only Holsteins
and Normande X Hol. crosses, the
Dairy Production Research Centre – Ireland
Found that Norwegian Red, Montbeliarde X Hol.,
and Normande X Hol. were all
- Pregnancy rates on first service
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.