It’s common knowledge that crossbreeding produces heterosis — the hybrid vigour with qualities superior to those of both parents.
Crossbreeding is often reserved for females in the herd, but more producers are looking at the males to identify potential benefits and profit opportunities.
Breeding sires not fitting the purebred slot are considered hybrids or composites. While many use the terms interchangeably, technically they aren’t the same.
Hybrids are crossbreds having two distinct purebred parent breeds. Composites the result of mating among crossbred parents, normally creating animals with a similar percentage of a desired mix of more than two breeds through several generations of planning and selective breeding.
Benefits of crossing it up
Benefits of using a hybrid include the opportunity to form the ideal crossbred more easily, says Scott Greiner, professor and extension beef specialist at Virginia Tech. For example, he cites a producer with straight British breed females wanting to shift to a one-quarter Continental breed in resulting progeny.
“A half-British, half-Continental hybrid bull can make a quarter-bred calf in one generation,” Greiner says. “Using a purebred, we’re two sets away. Our first cross becomes a half-blood and if we mate those back to British, we get the quarter. That’s a big advantage.”
A separate advantage is that heterosis can be injected into the resulting calf crop based on the cows, as opposed to straight breeding.
The strategy fits longer-term plans as hybrids assist in maintaining a program without large breed-composition swings in resulting calf crops.
“That’s one of the historical challenges of purebreds,” Greiner says. “When we come back with a purebred bull, the breed mix within our cow herd and calf crop can sway and favour one breed or another. It’s just natural and at any point in time, we could have a less-consistent mix of breed composition. Hybrids allow us a chance to fix this across generations.”
Greiner says he’s comfortable saying there may be some potential libido advantages, although they may pertain more to large pastures and open range operations running more cows per bull. “Anecdotally, hybrid bulls seem to have enthusiasm for breeding and are aggressive in that way.”
Selecting the right mix
Once producers decide to use a hybrid or composite, the next decision is which combination?
“It’s important to have a clear objective and goals relative to the breeding program and where it’s headed,” Greiner says. “Identify those breeds supplying the genetics that not only meet them from a breed standpoint but also from a genetic merit standpoint.”
He says this ties in with the opportunity to add heterosis. “The crossbred cows should provide a breed mix desirable to the environment, marketing program and destination of the calves, whether it’s maternal or terminal.”
Much depends on their genetic makeup. When females are 50/50 in two breeds, and a bull of the same breeds is selected, some heterosis in the calves will be lost although it can still be sustainable. Maximum value is achieved when the makeup of the bulls doesn’t match that of the cows.
“Maternal heterosis is added in a simple and practical fashion by holding back heifers without having large fluctuations in breed composition between generations,” Greiner says. “It’s easier than using a complicated rotational system.”
Hybrids aren’t limited to only large beef operations, he adds. Practical crossbreeding with added heterosis also works easily in small herds.
“Traditional rotational methods using terminal sires aren’t always practical for smaller operations. But hybrids or composites can make mating strategies easier, especially when available pastures are limited. What they bring to the table can be equally capitalized on regardless of herd size.”
Greiner says the old concern of unpredictability in traits and genetics is disappearing as breeds continue to advance their genomic testing abilities and accuracy of EPDs.
“All the same tools are available. We’ve come a long way, from an industry standpoint. With the vast majority out there, breed associations have the technology to effectively perform genetic evaluations and provide EPDs and selection tools with hybrids just like purebreds.”
The beef industry has room for all types of breeding systems, including hybrids, composites and more mainstream practices. Greiner believes that in future, the interest and use of crossbreds will continue following the trend of recent years, as ease of management evolves and combines with heterosis.
“With excellent genetic prediction tools behind these crossbred bulls, we can select them in the same fashion as purebreds. I believe their use will continue to grow.”