Crossbreeding cattle comes with many considerations

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heifers in a barn
Two curious heifers check out a visitor in their barn.

Growing up on a small dairy farm in Kentucky, my father primarily used a herd bull on our dairy farm, but my grandfather had a registered herd, and even though he had a “clean up” bull, he primarily bred with artificial insemination.

When the technician came to breed a cow, he would retrieve the ampule (glass capsule) of semen from the liquid nitrogen tank, etch the neck, break off the top and then load the insemination rod by pulling the semen into the rod. Then, along came the straw of semen that could be loaded directly into the insemination rod.

Questions

Which bulls to choose from? Well, we chose among the best of the Holstein sires versus cost for our two Holstein herds.

There was no question as to crossbreeding of dairy cattle — of course, there was no sexed semen. We were not breeding dairy cows to a beef sire. This only happened if the neighbor’s beef bull got out and bred some of our cows or heifers unintentionally.

Today, breeding decisions are more complex. Is the offspring to be used for head replacements? If so, then dairy sires of high merit will be selected and semen sexed for females may be considered, especially for breeding the heifers with higher fertility.

If the offspring is going to be sold, then are they for dairy breeding or beef? If going for beef, then we should be breeding the cow to a beef sire instead of a dairy sire. Are we interested in semen sexed for males?

Crossbreeding

In the April 2021 issue of the Journal of Dairy Science, D.P. Berry from the Animal and Grassland Research and Innovation Center, in Ireland, published an invited review paper on “Beef-on-dairy – the generation of crossbred beef x dairy cattle.”

This article addressed many facets of where and why the dairy industry has changed to consider breeding some cows to beef sires. The paper outlines a decision tree to consider for Bessy.

During the pre-breeding phase, should she be culled? If not, then if she is genetically superior, breed her to a high merit dairy sire using sexed or conventional semen. If she is of low genetic merit, then breed her to a beef sire.

From this point, farmers have to decide which females are going to be kept based on genotyping, and then use a transaction index for how those for beef will be reared for the desired markets.

Price impacts

Given that dairy producers are often focused on thinking about changes in prices per hundredweight for their milk, the author shared the impacts of the differential price for dairy calves versus dairy-beef crossbred calves.

As the differential varies between $0 to $200, the equivalent price per pound of milk increases as the differential price for the calf increases and the differential price for milk is greater with lower than higher producing herds, as the differential price of the calf increases.

This is relatively intuitive, but it may help to reflect on the equivalent price change in milk instead of just the differential price received for marketed calves. Either way, the pros and cons of various breeding decisions need to be considered.

Certainly, there is a lot to consider and evaluate for a dairy herd as far as which semen to use based on herd genetics, number of replacements needed and available beef markets.

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