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Crossbreeding, targeted focus promotes biggest bang for buck on commercial operations

Written by Saige

Crossbreeding with breeds that complement each other can help create a ranching operation the next generation can profit from, according to an animal scientist Extension specialist from the University of Nebraska. 

Passing on a viable ranching operation to the next generation is the goal for most ranchers, but passing on a ranch with just a love for cows is not the same thing, Matt Spangler tells producers. 

Complementarity

One way to create profit is by focusing on breed complementarity by crossbreeding. 

“True breed complementarity is a combination or merger of a breed that is strong in terminal strengths, like growth and carcass merit, with a breed or combination of breeds that are strong in maternal characteristics. The goal is to combine the terminal and maternal breeding systems,” he says. 

The majority of cow/calf producers sell some calves at weaning and keep some back for replacement heifers. 

“The problem with that is, we are leaving money on the table. The pervasive thought is one breed can do it all, and that is simply not true. There is not one breed out there that excels in all areas of profitability,” he says.

“It is also false to say one bull can do it all,” Spangler continues. “What if I said forget about maternal strengths and focus on terminal strengths or vice versa?” 

“The more traits we focus on, the less progress we make,” he explains.

Terminal traits

If a producer sells terminal calves at weaning and those calves excel in the same traits as the producer’s bull battery, then that producer is not maximizing profit, Spangler suggests. 

“Some would counter that is the way we have always done it, but that is not a valid argument,” he adds.

Terminal traits of importance are calf survival, male fertility, disease susceptibility, calving ease direct, growth rate, feed efficiency, carcass quality and composition. 

“If a producer selects bulls with a lower birthweight EPD for calving ease or selects bulls that have higher calving ease direct EPDs and they keep replacement heifers out of these bulls, there is a slight antagonism between calving ease direct and calving ease maternal,” Spangler explains.

He continues, “If they select for maternal calving ease over and over and over, there is a chance those daughters they keep back will have a harder time giving birth as a first calf heifer.”

On the other hand, if all the calves are terminal, meaning they were selected for terminal traits like hot carcass weight, yield grade and marbling, other negative effects can be seen, Spangler says. 

“If we use that index and keep back replacement heifers, we have just said we’re choosing bulls to breed females based on hot carcass weight, marbling and yield grade. Carcass characteristics are probably not the list we want to use to select females from,” he adds.

Trends

Genetic trends in the Angus breed, which means the average of the Angus breed, have made tremendous strides in yearling weight, hot carcass weight and carcass marbling, which are all terminal characteristics. 

“The way we think about breeds now has to be reflective of the breed averages we see today. A great example is mature cow weight. We used to think British breeds were conservative in size and continental breeds were large in mature size. Now, a lot of our British breeds have become a lot larger than the Continental breeds,” he says.

Replacements

Ideally, small ranches should keep their replacement heifers separate from the rest of the herd, like larger ranches do. 

“The challenge is, does it make sense to sort 10 to 20 heifers out of the herd and manage them as a group and have to calve at night for that small of a number? We should ask ourselves if our time could be better spent elsewhere,” he tells producers. 

“I would argue that completely eliminating calving heifers could make the ranch more profitable and certainly more enjoyable,” Spangler says. “However, these smaller herds represent a larger fraction of sale herds in the U.S. But, there is room for improvement.”

For some producers, the solution may be as simple as implementing a system where one producer produces maternal replacements and another produces terminal calves and outsources their maternal replacements from the first producer.

Challenges

Spangler sees breed means coming together, which hurts complementarity. 

“However, if we are a seedstock producer, there is nothing wrong with differentiating our cattle as maternal or terminal breeds,” he says. “Smaller cows may or may not be more efficient, but they can be more profitable bred to terminal sires.” 

“Trying to be all-purpose reduces efficiency and profitability. We can’t be all-purpose and maximize profitability. Selecting for fewer traits leads to faster progress in those traits we are selecting for,” he explains.

He referred to a quote from Burke Teichert, a cattle management consultant. 

“Let the imagination wander. What if smaller ranchers were to buy all their replacement heifers from a large ranch. The smaller ranch would never have to breed or calve a heifer, only cows. It would ensure cow size is small and allow breeding to a terminal sire to allow growth and carcass,” Spangler quoted. “All calves would then be sold with no replacements retained. The larger ranch is already breeding replacements and calving heifers, so why not breed a few more and sell some to the smaller ranch?”

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..