Crossing two breeds isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Cow herders have been doing so for generations to produce better cattle. But it’s in the modern era where the practice of heterosis may produce its most striking results.
The major cattle breeds are well-defined after centuries of refinement. But deviations from established breeds can be quite stark. On the other hand, access to stock from across the globe means farmers today can incorporate traits their predecessors didn’t have the option to consider.
How a farmer crafts the genetic makeup of a herd is largely a matter of personal preference, said Bill Halfman, a cattle specialist with UW-Extension in Monroe County. Most commercial operations crossbreed their stock to some degree and the benefits are well documented across the industry.
Still, he emphasized, it’s important for proprietors to do their due diligence. The cost of crossbreeding isn’t typically a problem for farmers, it’s how they go about it. Heterosis is a fine-tuned art form. Left unchecked, crossbreeding can introduce negative traits into the herd or, in the case of combining too many breeds, it can create unwanted unpredictability.
“Make sure that you do your research and that your breeds are compatible,” Halfman said. “The biggest thing is spending the time to make sure that the genetics that you’re selecting are complementary and helps them improve their meat, that it leads to your goals from there.”
What traits should a cattle farmer be looking for? In this neck of the woods, it’s common for commercial operations to combine strains from the British Isles, where cattle are known for their marbling, and Continental breeds, where cattle are inclined to develop more muscle mass.
The rule isn’t set in stone, however.
Farther south, it’s more common for ranchers to incorporate eastern brahma cattle genetics into their stock. The offspring of these cattle, Halfman said, often have better heat tolerance. It’s a trait that’s only becoming more desirable as summers become drier and hotter.
In specialized operations, it’s not uncommon for other traits to be the focus.
Some farmers incorporate highland cattle in their stock to produce calves with denser coats and better protection against harsh winters. Some breeds are better adapted to process certain types of feed, or survive in conditions major breeds don’t handle as well. Temperament and sociability can also be a goal of breeding.
By introducing distinct bloodlines, a farmer can reduce the chances of recessive traits — many that are undesirable or defective — from emerging in the herd.
Of course, there’s always a chance that incorporating new stock, especially if these breeds aren’t as compatible as the farmer might hope, can lead to the introduction of undesirable traits as well.
But, regardless of what stock is used, Halfman said, the practice of heterosis in itself often produces eye-opening results. The phenomenon of “hybrid vigor,” or when a crossbred calf is demonstratively superior to both parents, is well documented.
This aspect of genetics seems to become only more pronounced the wider the gene pool. Combining Black Angus with Red Angus is often a sure bet to produce a dependable, well-bred calf. Crossbreeding a Simmental with an Indian brahma cow can lead to good returns.
That being said, Halfman cautioned famers need to have a clear idea of what they want and work to select the right cattle for their breeding programs. This attention to detail not only applies to breeds as a general rule, he said, but particularly to individual bovines that will be fostering the next generation of calves.
The beef market has been robust for the most part recently, Halfman said, though it’s subject to a number of factors — such as drought in parts of the country, fluctuating grain prices and the early sale of feeder calves in local markets — which creates uncertainty.
“We’re still going through times where market volatility can happen for any reason,” Halfman said. “It’s hard to do any kind of long term predictions on how things may stay for any time.”