Crossbreeding is picking up steam. According to estimates based on Dairy Herd Improvement Association (DHIA) records, the number of crossbreds in USDA's Animal Improvement Programs Laboratory database jumped from 2.8% of the national herd in 2000 to 6.6% on Jan. 1, 2010. That's nearly 600,000 cows in "mixed breed” herds, and might actually be an underestimate since many large, commercial herds aren't in the database.
The bulk of these are Holstein-Jersey crosses, and 95% of those are being bred back to one of the parent breeds. Only about 5% are being bred to a third breed.
In 2009, however, 48% of the 278,537 units of semen imported was from breeds other than Jersey and Holstein. Producers appear to be trying to come up with a three-way cross that optimizes heterosis.
Data from California DHIA, which includes cattle from eight Western states, shows that Holsteins still out-produce crossbreds by 2,675 lb. of milk (23,466 lb. versus 20,791 lb.).
But when you look at feed efficiency, that advantage dissipates. Holsteins have about a 1.5 feed efficiency ratio. Jerseys shine, with 1.66, and crossbreds are intermediate at 1.57.
Selling into a cheese market, Jerseys have a 17% greater cheese yield per ton of dry matter fed. Crossbreds have a 6% advantage over Holsteins.
Alan Vander Horst started crossbreeding seven years ago, primarily to breed smaller cattle for a small parlor on one of his dairies. He now milks several thousand crossbreds at his dairies in the Stephenville, Texas, area and says profitability is substantially higher.
The crossbreds, particularly those with Jersey blood, are far more heat-tolerant. And he's able to achieve pregnancy rates of 24% to 28%.
But Vander Horst also has a warning: "There's a lot of crossbred junk out there—guys who use Jersey bulls for calving ease and just get rid of the calves. The best animal is the intended cross using the best bulls of their breed. They make fabulous cattle.”
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