The economic climate of today's beef business is challenging. Commercial cow-calf producers are faced with optimizing a number of economically important traits, while simultaneously reducing costs of production in order to remain competitive. Traits such as reproduction, growth, maternal ability, and end product merit all influence productivity and profitability of the beef enterprise. Implementation of technologies and systems that both reduce costs and enhance productivity is essential. One of the oldest and most fundamental principles that has a positive influence on accomplishing these goals is crossbreeding.
Crossbreeding beef cattle offers two primary advantages relative to the use of only one breed: 1) crossbred animals exhibit heterosis (hybrid vigor), and 2) crossbred animals combine the strengths of the various breeds used to form the cross. The goal of a well-designed, systematic crossbreeding program is to simultaneously optimize these advantages of heterosis and breed complementarity.
Heterosis or hybrid vigor refers to the superiority in performance of the crossbred animal compared to the average of the straightbred parents. Heterosis may be calculated using the formula:
% Heterosis = [(crossbred average - straightbred
average) ÷ straightbred average] x 100
For example, if the average weaning weight of the straightbred calves was 470 pounds for Breed A and 530 pounds for Breed B, the average of the straightbred parents would be 500 pounds. If Breed A and Breed B were crossed and the resulting calves had an average weaning weight of 520 pounds, heterosis would be calculated as:
[(520 - 500) ÷ 500] x 100 = 4 %
This 4% increase, or 20 pounds in this example, is defined as heterosis or hybrid vigor.
The amount of heterosis expressed for a given trait is inversely related to the heritability of the trait. Heritability is the proportion of the measurable difference observed between animals for a given trait that is due to genetics (and can be passed to the next generation). Reproductive traits are generally low in heritability (less than 10%), and therefore respond very slowly to selection pressure since a very small percentage of the differences observed among animals is due to genetic differences (a large proportion is due to environmental factors). The amount of heterosis is largest for traits that have low heritabilities. This has significance for commercial breeding systems, as crossbreeding can be used to enhance reproductive efficiency. To date, the ability to select for reproduction is limited (ie. there are no EPDs for reproduction). Traits that are moderate in their heritabilities (20 to 30%) such as growth rate are also moderate in the degree of heterosis expressed (around 5%). Highly heritable traits (30 to 50%) such as carcass traits exhibit the lowest levels of heterosis.