*Dr. Darrh Bullock is professor of beef cattle genetics at the University of Kentucky. To expedite answers to questions concerning this column, please direct inquiries to Feedstuffs, Bottom Line of Nutrition, 7900 International Dr., Suite 650, Bloomington, Minn. 55425, or email [email protected]
OVER the last few years, there has been a lot of debate over the practice of straight-breeding versus crossbreeding — too much, to be quite honest.
As with any other decision in beef cattle management, this one should be approached by determining what the practice costs versus what it returns. Of course, there are always other variables that come into play such as convenience and personal preference, but for most cattle producers, the driving force behind management decisions is economics, whether real or perceived.
This article explores some current trends, exposes some potential misconceptions and reviews some production and economic implications associated with crossbreeding.
Based on surveys of beef producers in Kentucky conducted in 2002 and again in 2012, approximately 10% of commercial producers had moved from crossbreeding to straight-breeding in their herd: 88% used crossbreeding in 2002 versus 78% in 2012.
When asked why this change occurred, the typical response was that there is a $5-10/cwt. premium for selling black calves. Based on a report by Leupp et al. (2008), that difference is closer to $3/cwt., but nevertheless, there is a premium paid for black calves.
I think most people would agree that this reduction in crossbreeding is actually a shift not to just straight-breeding but to straight Angus breeding.
To try to better understand why this change was occurring, a series of questions were asked in the genetics portion of Kentucky's Master Cattleman educational program where farmers answered the questions using electronic polling devices. Almost 400 beef producers have participated in this poll (Bullock et al., 2013).
In response to the first question — "How important is coat color in your bull selection?" — 66% answered "very important," 30% answered "somewhat important" and 4% answered "not very important." These results indicate that other than for a very small fraction of producers, coat color is on their mind when they buy a bull.
This led to the next question — "What traits do you think coat color impacts?" — to which 2% answered "birth weight," 2% answered "weaning weight," 5% answered "carcass traits," 41% answered "coat color" and 50% answered "all of the above."
The correct answer is "coat color" alone. Coat color is controlled by one pair of genes, so if a calf gets one or two black genes from its parents, it will have a black coat, but it needs to get a red gene from both parents to be red.
There has been no evidence to suggest that these genes have any association with any production traits. No performance differences should be expected between black and red full-sibling calves for any trait.
So, the obvious question is: Why do we place so much emphasis on coat color if it doesn't affect any production traits? The answer, for most producers, is: "If the market pays for it, I'm going to select for it."
When asked, "Why do you think the market pays for a trait that is not associated with any production traits?", the common response is the promotional campaign of Angus, specifically the Certified Angus Beef (CAB) program.
To follow up on this, the last question in the series was: "How much Angus breeding is required for Certified Angus Beef?" Eleven percent answered "100%," 19% answered "75%," 36% answered "50%," 20% answered "25%" and 13% answered "0%." Most of these beef producers are amazed when informed that CAB requires 0% Angus breeding; it requires 51% black-hided OR Angus source, which means certified Angus sired.
Of course, there are a multitude of other requirements to qualify as CAB, and it truly is a great product that, in my opinion, has benefited the entire industry by giving consumers a name brand to relate to. However, in some ways, it has likely limited some commercial beef producers' production capacity by luring them into repeated purchases of bulls from the same breed, thus reducing the amount of hybrid vigor (heterosis) in their herd.
Let's review hybrid vigor and what it means to the beef industry.
It is easy to see where the two bookends of the beef industry, the seedstock producers and the packing industry, would not greatly benefit from hybrid vigor.
Seedstock producers have the desire to sell as many bulls as possible, so if a commercial producer wants to continue to purchase bulls from a particular breeder, why stop him?
Also, heterosis has limited effects on carcass traits, and for most, it is close to 0%; therefore, the packing industry sees very little benefit in carcass improvement through the implementation of a good crossbreeding program.
The greatest benefactor of a sound crossbreeding program is the commercial cattle producer.
The group of traits influenced the most through a crossbreeding program is the reproductive traits (Weaber, 2010). Individual heterosis for calving rate is approximately 4.4%, and maternal heterosis adds another 3.7%. This, along with an improved survival rate to weaning, simply means more calves on the truck on sale day. Combine that with an improved milking ability and added growth, and the result is more pounds of sellable product.
The estimates for heterosis for pounds of weaned calf per cow exposed (the closest measurement of sellable product in the commercial industry that I know of) is approximately 24%, assuming maximum heterosis — an F1 cow bred to a bull of a different breed, which is almost nonexistent in the beef industry. In the simplest two-breed, rotational crossbreeding system, switching the breed of bull every four years increases that heterosis estimate approximately 12-16%.
With a crossbreeding program, a slight increase in the mature weight of brood cows will result, which adds to maintenance costs, but there is also an increase in longevity, which keeps the cow in the herd an additional year.
For argument's sake, let's say maintenance and longevity cancel each other out, and we assume that we are going to increase pounds of weaned calves by 15% (upper end of the simplest crossbreeding system). If we sell 50,000 lb. of straight-bred calves at $150/cwt., the net income would be $75,000.
Crossbreeding increases sellable weight by 15%, or $11,250. The straight-bred calves are going to weigh slightly less, so you could apply a slide, but it would be minimal, so for simplicity's sake, I did not. Therefore, if you are going to make up the difference by getting a premium for your straight-bred calves, they would need to sell for $172.50/cwt., or a $22.50/cwt. premium.
The Bottom Line
It is not likely that you could ever convince a buyer to give you a 15% premium for your calves, regardless of the breeding program. The other reality is that I can do this very crossbreeding program and produce all black calves, which would entitle me to the same premium as the straight-bred producer, plus the 15% increase in production.
I will concede that I have provided this example with the assumption that calves are sold at weaning and that if you retain ownership all the way through and get paid on the grid, there is an increased opportunity to make up some of the difference with an aggressive selection program.
You may argue with my logic, my numbers or anything else, but the one thing I would like you to take away from this article is that you need to do the pencil calculations on every management decision. Determine the potential gains, and subtract the potential costs. If you come up with a positive number, then go for it; if not, then don't.
Bullock, K.D., L.H. Anderson, J.K. Lehmkuhler and W.R. Burris. 2013. Misconceptions that lead to straight breeding in commercial beef cattle operations. J. Anim. Sci. (Southern Section Abstracts): 31.
Leupp, J.L., G.P. Lardy, R. Daly, C.L. Wright and J.A. Paterson. 2008. Factors influencing price of North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana feeder calves. 2009 North Dakota State Beef Cattle & Range Research Report. p. 46-49.
Weaber, B. 2010. National Beef Cattle Evaluation Consortium Beef Sire Selection Manual: Crossbreeding for Commercial Beef Production. p. 50-57.