Don’t Ignore Hybrid Vigor

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Some of you may have seen the advertisement from the Angus Association in which the Angus breed is saying that you don’t need to crossbreed; all you need is Angus. While they may like for you to believe that, research has proven time after time that crossbreeding pays. In fact, Dr. Larry Cundiff with the USDA Meat Animal Research Center indicated their research has proven this to be true as well.

Many producers have gotten away from planned crossbreeding systems. I see this as an increasing issue everywhere I go, not just in Sampson County. It is due partly to the ready availability and ease with which an Angus bull can be purchased and partly to the ease of management when using only one sire breed, but it’s mainly due to the market demand for black cattle. I know some people will not like what I have to say and I will come across looking like I am Angus-bashing! While that is not my intent and I am not anti-Angus, it will be the main focus of this article due to the fact that Angus is at the center of this dilemma. Keep in mind however, that what is said here applies to any breed of cattle, not just Angus.

I’ll start by saying that more and more producers are, whether knowingly or unknowingly, moving toward cow herds that are basically purebred Angus. Year after year, Angus bulls are turned in with the cows and heifers from those bulls are kept for replacements. If replacements aren’t retained, Angus sired heifers or cows are usually purchased to enter the herd. These females are then bred to an Angus bull and the pattern is repeated. Assuming I started with a different breed initially, after using Angus bulls and keeping heifers for four years, I have some heifers now that are 93.75% Angus. This percentage is considered to be purebred by breed associations that allow breeding up. As you can see, in a few more years as you cull older cows and replace them with heifers, you have a herd that is considered purebred Angus. Again, keep in mind the same will be true if you use any breed in the manner described above.

I stated in the opening paragraph that the main reason for this is the market demand for black cattle. The easiest way to assure yourself of getting black cattle is to use an Angus bull. There is very little chance that a black Angus bull carries the red gene anymore so you don’t have that concern like you would using a black bull of another breed. However, I would also like to point out that there are more homozygous black bulls available in other breeds these days. Another reason is the ease of management. You only have to have one breeding pasture. You don’t need more than one bull. And you don’t have to keep up with parentage on heifers or how long you have been using a bull if you never switch breeds. A simple rotation of bull breeds every four years will make a big difference in your herd while still keeping management fairly simple.

Now to the point of the article. By the continued use of the same sire breed, you are losing the effects of heterosis and giving up what are essentially free pounds. Heterosis, or hybrid vigor, is the improvement shown by crossbred animals over straight bred animals. How much improvement varies depending on the breeds used but for weaning weight will average about 4% for crossbred calves over straight bred calves that are both nursing straight bred cows. This means you would get another 20 pounds on each 500 lb calf just for switching bulls. If you have twenty-five cows, it is like selling another calf. Not only do the calves weigh more but you also get added survivability in the crossbred calves so you get another 3% heterosis advantage in weaning percent. Let’s look at an example.

Say breed A calves average 480 lbs at weaning and breed B calves average 520 lbs. Calves sired by breed A out of breed B cows have weaning weights of 540 1bs and calves by breed B sires out of breed A cows average 520 lbs. The amount of heterosis from the crossbreeding would be figured by subtracting the straight bred average (480+520)/2=500) from the crossbred average (540+520)/ 2=530) and dividing that amount, 30 in this example, by the straight bred average and multiplying by 100 [(30/500)*100=6] which yields a 6% heterosis value.

The advantages become even greater if you use a third breed on crossbred cows. You get the added pounds from the calf heterosis in the example above. You also get greater weaning percentage from the crossbred cows, due to higher conception rates, and even greater weaning weights due to increased milk production. In a study conducted at the Fort Robinson Research Station (Cundiff and Gregory, 1977; Gregory and Cundiff, 1980), crossbred cows raising crossbred calves weaned 23.3 percent more calf weight per cow exposed than straightbred cows raising straightbred calves. Two thirds of the advantage was attributed to the maternal heterosis of the cow and one third to the individual heterosis of the calf. Other studies have show increases of up to 28%. Experiments using Brahman/European crosses have demonstrated even greater total increases over the straightbred parents.

It has been proven through research that hybrid vigor will add pounds to your calf crop. In high market price times, it may not seem as significant but when prices are low, as they are now, it is extremely important. This additional weight should not be dismissed to simply chase black hides. Again, let me emphasize that I am not in any way bashing, degrading, or opposing the use of Angus cattle. Angus cattle have made great contributions to the beef industry and absolutely have their place in a well planned and implemented crossbreeding system. It seems though that some producers see them as a silver bullet and have fallen into a straight breeding rut. As I stated earlier, more homozygous black cattle are becoming available in all breeds. There are breeders developing black Herefords with a few bulls already on the market. And, I have even seen one registered black Charolais! So, you can still meet the demand for black calves using a second breed of bull. As for ease of management, switching bull breeds every four years really isn’t that much trouble. Most folks buy a new bull every few years anyway. Pick two breeds and buy whichever one you don’t currently have. Having more than one breeding pasture can make things a bit more difficult but opens up other options as well. One thing I should mention here is to choose breeds that are similar and complement each other. I won’t make breed recommendations here but if you would like to discuss, or debate, breed choices and breeding systems, feel free to give me a call.