Cross-bred or pure-bred: designing a herd

Weigh up the advantages for your situation and decide accordingly, says Leslie Bergh. Good management is the key to successful cattle farming.

Cross-bred or pure-bred: designing a herd
A Brangus cow and calf. The Brangus is a composite breed utilising the best of the Brahman and Angus. Photo: Wayne Southwood
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There are no easy answers to whether it’s best to go for a pure-bred or a cross-bred herd.

Without going into complicated specifics, it’s possible to identify a number of guidelines that can be used to help stockmen make an informed decision for a specific situation.

Advantages of cross-breeding
Cross-breeding in beef cattle has two main advantages when compared to pure-breeding (also referred to as ‘straight breeding’).

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  • Cross-bred animals show hybrid vigour (heterosis), which is the superiority of the cross-bred offspring compared to the average of the pure-bred parent breeds. In a good cross-breeding programme, hybrid vigour can increase productivity in the herd by 25%, depending on the specific trait.
  • Cross-bred animals show ‘breed complementarity’, which is the combination of the strengths of two or more breeds crossed to produce offspring with optimum levels of performance in several traits.

The goal of a well designed, systematic cross-breeding programme is to optimise the advantages of heterosis and breed complementarity.

The greatest benefit of cross-breeding lies in the use of F1 (first cross) cows. With careful selection of the parent breeds, such cows will be superior to the parent breeds.

Cross-bred cows can wean approximately 15% more weight of calf/cow exposed than pure-bred cows.

Selection
It’s important to realise cross-breeding does not solve biological and economic problems that have been caused by poor management, poor nutrition and the lack of purposeful selection.

Where the genetic stock is weak to begin with, cross-breeding is, in many cases, not used to increase economic efficiency, but just to maintain performance.

If your herd management is poor and you buy the cheapest possible bulls, then cross-breeding will make your problems worse. Secondly, it’s important to understand the differences between pure- and cross-breeding (See Table 1 for a comparison).

Cross-breeding requirements
The main requirement (and in most cases also the biggest problem) is that the system should be well-designed and systematically followed year after year.

If the system isn’t strictly adhered to, it will degenerate within a few years into aimless crossing with many problems, frustrations and little or no benefit.

Other requirements are:

  • Choosing the correct cross-breeding system, breeds and frame types within breeds for maximum benefit from heterosis and breed complementarity for your particular situation.
  • The purchase of high quality, performance-selected, pure-bred bulls. (A good bull is seldom too expensive, but a poor bull is always too expensive.)
  • Continuous rigorous, purposeful selection of breeding animals, including bulls, cows and heifers.
  • Maintaining a high level of management.
  • A relatively large herd (or herds), depending on the specific cross-breeding system. In small herds cross-breeding is not worth the effort.
  • An adequate number of camps per breeding group. Depending on the specific cross-breeding system, you’ll have a number of breeding groups running separately.
  • Breeding of own replacement heifers. If you need to buy in replacement heifers (as in a terminal cross-breeding system) every year, you’ll be dependent on another producer for quality and availability. This will increase expenses and the risk of introducing diseases, and you’ll have the usual problems of moving and adapting the heifers to a new environment.

The bottom line

  • Cross-breeding can result in a remarkable increase in the efficiency and profitability of beef production if the basic requirements of a well designed and meticulously followed cross-breeding system are met. If not, the same or better profits can be achieved by pure-breeding and purposeful selection based on performance test data and breeding values.

Leslie Bergh is a senior researcher in beef cattle recording and improvement at the Agricultural Research Council’s Animal Production Institute.

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