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Crossbreeding cattle outside family lines ups hybrid vigor

Crossbred cattle have better fertility, feed efficiency, disease resistance and longevity than purebreds, many believe.

The increase in these traits is part of the phenomenon called hybrid vigor, or heterosis. Buddy Westphal, Valley View Charolais Ranch, near Polson, Mont., who sells bulls all over the U.S., says many are purchased by cattle producers who use them for crossbreeding.

“The more unrelated the parents, the more kick you get from crossbreeding,” he says. “My genetics teacher at Colorado State University 40 years ago stated that Charolais would be the breed that would most complement our British breeds. This is still true today, especially since other European breeds in this country are no longer purebred — having gone “black” — and are not as unrelated to the British breeds as they once were.”

Key Points

• Heterosis is maximized when breeding animals with very different genetics.

• Crossbred cows provide the most benefit in a cow-calf operation.

• Crossbreeding ensures maximum hardiness and a strong immune system.

The crossbred calf tends to be stronger and more vigorous, getting up soon after birth to nurse, he says, noting that a crossbred animal has a strong immune system, regaining whatever was lost through many generations of inbreeding and linebreeding that occurs in every breed to standardize certain traits so the animals always breed “true.”

The inbreeding and linebreeding help make a breed consistent, but limits the gene pool, resulting in less hardiness, Westphal says.

Advantages of the crossbred cow

“Greater health and immunity in crossbred calves makes a big difference in number of calves weaned, as well as increased growth and weaning weights. Performance in the feedlot is also much better. Feed-efficient calves bring more money when sold to the feeder,” says Westphal.

“Crossbred calves can often be sold right off the cow [not pre-weaned] and stay healthier under stressful conditions, and buyers know this,” he says.

The crossbred female is a great mother, says Westphal, since she reaches puberty at a young age, calves easily, often gives more milk or better quality milk (yet breeds back in harsh conditions), and stays in the herd longer. “One of my college classmates, Larry Rice, invented the Rice Pelvimeter to measure pelvic area,” he says. “We learned that crossbred heifers on average have an increase of 30 square centimeters — from 235 to 265 — above other heifers. It didn’t matter if we were using Hereford bulls on black cows or using a Charolais bull, the daughters gained that extra pelvic measurement,” says Westphal.

A crossbred cow may stay in better body condition with increased feed efficiency. Even if she loses weight in a dry year or bad winter, she tends to still be productive at a low body condition score and will usually breed back, Westphal notes, explaining that by contrast, straightbred cows may come up open or be late calving in these conditions.

If a cow is healthier, with a stronger immune system due to hybrid vigor, she develops better immunity when vaccinated and imparts better colostrum to her calf, Westphal says.

Research at Clay Center, Neb., shows a crossbred cow is 8% more efficient than a purebred, stays in the herd longer and has 25% more lifetime production (pounds of calf weaned). Breakeven costs of production were reduced about 10% by using crossbred cows.

Heather Smith Thomas writes from Salmon, Idaho.


WIDESPREAD MARKET: Buddy Westphal of Valley View Charolais Ranch, Polson, Mont., sells his bulls throughout the nation.

This article published in the August, 2010 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.