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Harnessing the power of hybrid vigor

Mandy Brazil and Gary Rogers for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 February 2017
These are the daughters of Norwegian Red sires crossed with Jersey-Holstein dams

Increase profit. Reduce management inputs. Design a cow that eats less, doesn’t know what a hospital pen is and rarely gets the “open” diagnosis at pregnancy check. This can be accomplished in a single generation with a $100 increase or more in profit per cow per year.

Sounds like a far-fetched semen salesman pitch. Could single-generation gains in profitability like this be realistic? Under traditional genetic selection and purebred dairy cattle breeding, no – not likely.

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Yet, are most of today’s highly successful businessmen thriving because they stick to traditional practices and don’t push for innovation? Also, unlikely.

The step towards profitability for new-age producers is not a step with tradition. For some, the best next move will be to implement a well-designed crossbreeding program.

The new reality of dairy breeding and crossbreeding solutions

For generations, profitability has been based on breeding for high outputs, especially in Holsteins. In recent years, the efficient, component-rich Jersey has captured much attention. However, both can leave progressive dairies wondering, “Is this as good as it gets?”

Genetic selection in the last 50 years has allowed dairy cows to increase milk, fat and protein yield dramatically. Unfortunately, this has had corresponding negative effects on health, fitness and reproductive traits.

To make a dairy sustainable, strategic crossbreeding can quickly zero in on traits that will increase profits, not just yields.

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Harnessing the best traits of different breeds with crossbreeding boosts long-term operation efficiency with the genetic injection from Holsteins to maintain production, Jersey to leverage components and Norwegian Red to enhance health and fertility.

In fact, U.S. Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding’s (CDCB) PTAs and heterosis values related to these traits demonstrate in commercial herds that two and three-way crosses of these breeds excel in performance for these key traits.

Consider why cows typically leave your herd involuntarily. For most dairies, it is hard breeders. Compared to Holstein herdmates, large-scale U.S. dairies with Norwegian Red and Holstein crossbreds have seen an increase in conception rates by 9 percent or more and reduced days open of 16 or more days.

The value offered by the crossbred cow of breeding back quickly and hitting peak milk more frequently is at $48 or more per cow per year.

Treating sick cows is literally milk down the drain and labor dollars wasted. Norwegian Reds not only have higher genetic values for health traits, but when crossed with Holsteins, they contribute bonus hardiness from hybrid vigor.

Compared to pure Holsteins, Norwegian Red crosses have 20 percent less clinical disease incidence, a 50 percent lower mortality rate and 10 percent less mastitis. Fewer dollars spent on treatments and greater longevity in the herd.

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Trying to moderate the size of your Holstein cows? Achieving smaller statured Holsteins is not as easy or realistic as you want to believe. Very few available A.I. sires will truly create smaller cows. Crossing with Norwegian Red will moderate size in one generation. Crossbreds fit better in the facilities and eat less feed.

Inbreeding depresses milk and component yield, reduces fertility, makes cows more susceptible to disease and shortens herd life. A genetically high Holstein may never reach her full potential due to costly inbreeding effects. The worry of inbreeding losses can be eliminated with crossbreeding.

Not all crosses are created equal

Genetics still matters when it comes to crossbreeding. Although any combination of different breeds will generate some hybrid vigor, the biggest mistake a crossbreeding herd can make is to use low-level genetics from any breed. When selecting sires, consider how good the sires are within their respective breeds.

Herds selecting top genetics will have the highest parent average. The greater the parent average, the greater the gain from hybrid vigor. Hybrid vigor boosts production by 2 to 5 percent and fertility and health by 10 to 15 percent over the parent average.

Keep in mind the “best” bull for crossbreeding from each breed might not be the traditional number one bull in the breed. Think about what you are trying to get from each breed in your crossing system and really focus on your profit traits.

Strategies for leveraging hybrid vigor

Ultimately, performance depends on the breeds and the sires used. If poor sires or a poor performing breed is used, hybrid vigor (or heterosis) will probably not overcome the poor breed or poor sire impact.

A three-breed crossing system will provide more heterosis in each new generation compared to a two-breed cross. If a third breed is used on the first-generation cross (F1), the second generation (F2) will have high heterosis similar to the F1. Likewise, a four-breed cross will provide more heterosis per generation than a three-breed cross.

However, crossbreeding plans should always evaluate the benefit of more breeds (more heterosis) versus the merit of the additional breeds used in the cross. The most common crossing plans usually involve three breeds, such as Holstein, Jersey and Norwegian Red.

Typical two-breed crosses include either Holstein and Norwegian Red or Jersey and Norwegian Red. Two-breed rotations have somewhat lower heterosis compared to three or four-breed crossing programs, but a two-breed crossing program is simpler to manage and may provide increased focus on desired traits.

Crossbreeding Holsteins with Norwegian Red is a good option if Jersey crosses are too small for your facilities.

Another alternative to capture maximum heterosis and genetic performance is to use IVF and embryo technology. First-generation crossbred embryos can be implanted to continuously create an F1 herd of heterosis-rich cows.

Committing to the plan

Choosing to go with crossbreeding is not a decision to take lightly. It needs to be a well-designed plan with a long-term view. Evaluate the shortcomings of your current breed and determine if the solution could be helped with the genetics from a complementary breed.

Crossbreeding is not a quick fix for poor management or facilities. However, when done correctly, crossbreeding can improve herd health, fertility and overall profitability in one generation.

One of the most important things a producer can do when starting crossbreeding is to be open-minded during the first couple of years. You are leaving tradition behind and using best business practices to become profitable as quickly as possible.  end mark

PHOTO: These second-lactation cows are the daughters of Norwegian Red sires crossed with Jersey-Holstein dams. This three-way cross offers advantages in traits like health and fertility. Photo provided by ABS Global.

Gary Rogers is a global technical adviser with Geno Global.

Mandy Brazil
  • Mandy Brazil

  • North American Dairy Genetic Services
  • ABS Global

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