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Heterosis – The Value of Cross Breeding

By: Colby Elford BSc. PAg, Regional Livestock Specialist, Moose Jaw

We all have breeds of cattle that we prefer.  Maybe because of production traits, maybe because of conformation, maybe it is just loyalty.  It is becoming more and more common to see a herd of commercial cattle that is essentially only one breed. However, by choosing to not crossbreed we may be leaving value behind.  Heterosis or Hybrid Vigor are terms used to describe the advantage that cross bred animals have over their straight bred counterparts.

There are essentially two ways to capture the value of heterosis - through direct heterosis or through maternal heterosis.  Direct or individual heterosis is the benefit observed from a calf whose dam and sire are of different breeds – a crossbred calf.  Dr. Deke Alkrie with the Samuel Roberts noble foundation writes that advantages of direct heterosis include a four per cent increase in calf survival and a five per cent increase in weaning weight.  Although these effects are influenced by the breeds involved, any benefit represents an improvement in net return with no additional cost (assuming the same value of sire). 

Maternal heterosis is the advantage of a crossbred cow over a straight bred cow.  These improvements include a 38 per cent increase in longevity as well as a 23 per cent increase in lifetime productivity over their counterparts.  These cows also have a four per cent increase in calf survival rate and an eight per cent increase in overall efficiency. 

Not only do cross bred animals exhibit improved production traits like weaning weight and yearling weight, they also combine strengths from the parent breeds through breed complementarity.  Some breed combinations produce highly-desirable progeny for a broad range of traits. Breeds that are weak in one area may be bred with breeds that exhibit strengths in that area that result in an animal that has the best of both breeds.

Heterosis is also the easiest and quickest way to improve less heritable traits.  Dr. Bob Weaber with Kansas State University recently wrote that traits like reproduction and longevity have low heritability.  These traits take a long time to improve with selection, but can be improved quickly through cross breeding. 

If you are trying to increase profitability, then utilizing heterosis should be part of your plan.  Some producers may find it simplest and quickest to purchase crossbred heifers or cows from a reputable source that fits in with their herd.  Some producers will find it more effective to raise these animals on their own.  Selecting animals with traits that are suitable for their management and environment from breeds that are compatible is also a very good option, although it may take longer to make desired changes.  Either way, implementing a good crossbreeding plan will have a positive effect on the ranch’s bottom line, as well as help to increase the quality of the cowherd and the calves produced.

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