Sunday, December 18, 2011


Hello everyone! Hope you're enjoying the weekend before Christmas. I have had a couple more questions (thank you!), and am going to dive into one from Ryan over at the RA Ranch.
 Have you written anything on heterosis? ...or more so where I'm now-what to cross on these angus/hereford cross heifers I'm keeping? That's the short version of what I'm wondering.

Thanks for the question Ryan.

I have an example of angus/hereford (black baldie) heifers shown above. There is no "right" answer to this question. But, we're going to run through some stuff on heterosis, and some of the more common choices people in Ryan's situation make.

First, for anyone who is wondering what in the heck is heterosis, good ol' Webster defines it as: the marked vigor or capacity for growth often exhibited by crossbred animals or plants - called also hybrid vigor.
Still a little confused?

I've given this a lot of thought, and one way I've come up with to explain heterosis is with paint colors. If you have purebred animals, it's like having one color of paint. Say yellow. Then there are other purebred breeds, and they are also single colors. Say blue and red.
So long as you have one breed, it's like only having one color of paint. It can be a beautiful color that you love, but it's still just one color. If you crossbreed, that's like adding the paint color from another breed. You suddenly have the ability to make more colors, which can make your painting better, or worse, depending on your opinion and abilities.

When you crossbreed with two breeds, you have yellow, and red, and all the shades of orange you can make by mixing the two. Is it better? That's up to you to decide. Maybe you like just yellow, or maybe you like the result of combining paint colors.

This is where Ryan is with his black baldie heifers. He's crossed two purebred breeds (Black Angus and Hereford), which is like the mixing of yellow and red.

You can add yet another color through crossing your yellow and red with blue.You can still make orange, and have added the potential for purple and green, and all the original colors too. Now you're getting a lot of colors in your painting. Again, whether you like all that added color or not is a personal choice. It's also important to remember that as you add more colors, less of any one individual color will be seen.

But, another thing to keep in mind is if you keep adding colors and mixing them, eventually you'll end up with that ugly shade of brown we've all seen in art class that nobody wants to use for anything.
The same is true in crossing animals. Some is great, a lot usually isn't. Each breed of cattle offers different strengths and weaknesses, and by crossbreeding them you have the potential to maximize the good aspects of different breeds and minimize their less desirable traits. But if you go too far, the result can be an inferior animal instead of the superior animal you were aiming for.

Now that we've covered what heterosis is, and how it works, we can cover some options for "paint colors" for Ryan's heifers.

Both the Angus and Hereford breed are strong maternal breeds, and black baldie cattle are great mother cows. He has heifers that are a combination almost any commercial cattlemen would be happy to own.

One option would be to breed to a strong terminal breed, such as Charolais or Gelvbieh, which are known for their ability to increase rate of gain, muscle and yield grade. Calves that are half terminal and half maternal will technically retain some maternal traits, while also having increased growth potential and muslcing ability.

It's not maternal breeds don't do well in these areas, and you can't have heavy muscled, fast growing cattle that are maternally bred, it's that terminal breeds are known for doing better overall. Back to the paint idea, if you're selling pretty paintings, why not use more colors. In the livestock business, commercial producers are selling pounds, so why not use breeds that will give us the most pounds in the least amount of time?

Now you may be thinking, well gee, if you're selling pounds, why bother with any maternal breeds after what you just said? Well, because maternal breeds excel at things like mothering, milking, fertility and marbling. That great big calf won't do you any good if he never happens because his mother wasn't fertile, or she didn't care for him and he died as a baby, or she didn't have enough milk and he didn't get big because he didn't have enough to eat as a calf. Marbling is also a key part of producing a great tasting beef product. So, as with paint, the different breeds bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table, and deciding what you're going to breed is much like selecting paint colors for a painting.

Another thing to consider is whatever one sex of the calves has for traits, so does the other sex. So, yes it's great to have a bunch of great big, heavy muscled, fast gaining steer calves that are just massive and impressive. But, their sister's will probably be much the same, and if you're keeping those females to put back in your cowherd, you have to consider her mature size, what size of calf she will have, if she will produce enough milk, keep in good enough condition to breed back, how much she will eat, etc...

It's a fine tuned balancing act to produce a calf crop that does everything you want on both the steer calf side and the heifer calf side, in your location, and there is no "perfect recipe" that works for everyone.

You can also have maternal bred cattle that will gain as well as terminal bred cattle, and terminal bred cattle that will be moderate and fertile, depending on the specific cattle within a breed you use. There is a lot of variation within any breed, and as I said above, there is no set "right" way to breed cattle. People are very successful, and very unsuccessful, with any number of breeds and crossbreeding combinations.

Another option is to breed those heifers back to either an Angus or Hereford bull, and increase the influence of one of those breeds. We have a lot of cows that are 3/4 Angus, 1/4 Hereford, and I really like them. Since these are both maternal based breeds, that's the strength of the calves. But, these are also two of the most popular breeds in the world (Angus is the most popular), and they didn't get that way by just being maternal. Both breeds offer a lot in the area of gain, carcass quality and growth in addition to producing heifer calves that will breed back, be a good mother, produce milk, etc...

Or, Ryan could inject the influence of another maternal breed, like Red Angus, and increase his heterosis with that third maternal breed.

Another thing to consider is how cattle are bred (with bulls, or AI), and in how many pastures? It takes a lot more managment to keep everything strait when you start crossbreeding if you use bulls. If you just have one breed of bulls, then everyone can be together. For each additional breed you add, you often need to add another pasture during breeding season. Management can be a big factor in how much, or little, crossbreeding to implement on your operation.

Our family has done a three-way cross, where we bred for black baldie cows, and bred them to Gelvbieh bulls. We had to maintain three cowherds during breeding - all Hereford cows would be bred to Angus bulls (to get the black baldie cows), all Angus cows were bred to Hereford bulls (also to get baldie cows), and all baldie cows were bred to Gelvbieh bulls to get that three-way cross. We didn't want to keep any Gelvbieh influenced heifers, because they were often too big and coarse for us, so we had to have both Hereford and Angus cows to get our own replacement heifers, and the black baldie cows to produce the steers and market heifers we wanted.

The three-way cross were great cattle, and performed well whenever we marketed them. But, our situation changed, and it became much harder to maintain three cowherds. And, our straight Angus calves gained as fast as our crossbred calves in the feedlot, and we could run a single breed of bulls, so we're now all Angus.

There's a lot that goes into breeding cattle, whether you're crossbreeding or using one breed, and no two ranches are the same, so there is no one perfect way to breed cattle for the best result.

That was the long answer. The short answer is that in today's world, you can't go wrong if you turn out a high quality Black Angus bull with them, however they're bred.

Good luck Ryan, and hopefully I covered a few options for you to consider.

1 comment:

  1. WOW!!! Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my question! I really appreciate it! I typed my question a bunch of different ways, some being very long, and kept deleting them. I was like, she's going to answer everything I want to know by just a simple question, based on your experience and everything else I've read that you've done.....and you nailed it on a tricky queston!!! From looking at the pictures of your cattle, I thought maybe you'd delt with this situation at some time and I'm glad you put your own experiences in there! I liked that you put you really like your 3/4 Angus 1/4 Hereford cows. There's variations within the each breed themselves, was a good comment and tricky itself.....and comparing crossbreeding to colors is a great way to explain it! Since I'm building a herd of momma cows right now, I think I'll go back to Angus then this next year...that sounds like the best for my operation right now! You read so much on first crosses, then nothing...well for me anyway. I really liked how you addressed the question and hopefully others can learn from it also! Thanks again for your thoughts and facts on it!!! ....this is what I was looking for!!! Ryan