Commentary: Crossbreed or straightbreed?

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Much of your success in the beef business hinges on the genetics of your cow herd, or — if you’re a stocker operator or a cattle feeder — your ability to buy and manage someone else’s genetics.

Indeed, given the multiple challenges you face that are beyond your control — drought, rising feed and fuel costs, escalating land values — genetic selection may be the single most important component of your operation that you control. That’s why a couple of messages contained in this month's issue of Drovers/CattleNetwork are so important. Both messengers want you as a customer while our industry begins rebuilding from this year’s devastating drought.

The messengers are two of America’s most respected breed organizations, the American Angus Association and the American Hereford Association. Together these two breeds provide a genetic influence on the majority of commercial herds. Both breeds have a rich tradition and a long list of prominent breeders to their credit. Both breeds also have successful branded-beef programs that carry their name.

But their advertising messages this fall are vastly different. One is more traditional, the other more bold and, most assuredly, controversial.

Let’s begin with the more traditional message, brought to you by the American Hereford Association. An advertising insert attached to page 11 of this month's issue makes the case for using Hereford genetics in your herd. For instance, research at various universities has documented the outstanding qualities of Hereford females, calving ease, docility and the breed’s feed efficiency. Hereford is America’s second-largest breed registry, with 70,260 registrations, 37,091 transfers and 101,021 cows in the breed’s inventory.

The new, bold message — that prompts this column — comes from the American Angus Association. By all accounts, Angus has become a dominant force in the American cattle industry and is currently the nation’s largest registry with 294,975 animals registered in 2011. Surveys suggest about 70 percent of the nation’s cow herd now carries at least some Angus genetic influence. And, right or wrong, black-hided calves often bring a premium at auction.

The Angus message — found on pages 18 and 19 of this month's issue — goes beyond touting the breed’s qualities and characteristics. Indeed, the starting point for the advertisement assumes that you already know a lot about the quality of Angus genetics that provide benefits to both producers and consumers. That’s why the Angus Association is asking commercial cowmen to go all Angus. In other words, Angus is asking you to forego the use of crossbreeding.

That, no doubt, will be a controversial subject of debate and discussion in the months and maybe years ahead. After all, for decades cattlemen have been told of the advantages of crossbreeding. Extension publications suggest, “crossbreeding can increase the performance of any herd with little to no additional costs to the producer.” In short, crossbreeding was often referred to as the “free lunch” in the cattle business.

Now, Angus is proposing that with its genetic infusion in your herd the free lunch is already included.

That proposal to America’s commercial breeders is likely to anger a lot of purebred breeders of Hereford, Charolais, Red Angus, Gelbvieh, Limousin, Simmental, Shorthorn, Brangus and all other breeds.

The argument here is not for crossbreeding or straightbreeding — I’ll leave such a debate to those much more qualified.

However, the folks at the American Angus Association have just accepted a huge challenge and responsibility. The challenge is for the breed’s staff and breeders to live up to the proposition they are offering the commercial cattle industry. And the responsibility they are undertaking cannot be overstated: At a time when beef production is set to decline and retail prices are likely to increase substantially, Angus and everyone else must work to ensure satisfactory eating experiences are achieved with a high degree of probability.

The track record of Angus cattle and the American Angus Association suggests they are up to such a challenge.

But a challenge also lies before all other breeds, their staffs and breeders. The Angus Association is clearly coming after your market share. Are you prepared to answer that challenge?

As American ranchers begin to recover from the monster drought of 2012, they’ll rebuild and restock their herds. They’ll make genetic decisions that will have an impact for years on their ranch’s profitability and on consumer satisfaction.

Some of them will crossbreed. Some of them will straightbreed. But the responsibility for quality and safety belongs to us all.

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Colorado  |  October, 17, 2012 at 03:17 PM

No matter how good the genetics of a breed gets there will always be that added punch that comes from crossbreeding. Science proves again and again that every financially important trait to the cow calf operator are enhanced by crossing a pure bred bull on that commercial cow. That black baldy can't be beat in almost any environment in North America!!! Cow men from the coffee shop to the University researcher know it!

October, 17, 2012 at 03:57 PM

Crossbreeding is here to stay and with the advances that breeds like Simmental are making, angus nor Hereford can match what they will do bred to a British based cow herd...the continental breeds are doing it right and the best angus genetics will never match what they can do for the commercial producer!!!!

Warren Symens    
SD  |  October, 19, 2012 at 09:17 AM

In my humble opinion, pounds still sell. And, if the CAB program thinks they've succeeded solely on the Angus breed, without the influence of continental breeds that provide not only heterosis pounds, but yield and efficiency too, not to mention the increase in the number of head of cattle, that's the biggest mistake of all.

Missouri  |  October, 19, 2012 at 09:22 AM

The cold hard facts in this are clearly spelled out; What are the major packers looking for in the cattle they are harvesting. if any single breed believes they are powerful enought to change that they are barking up the wrong tree.

Oregon  |  October, 19, 2012 at 09:42 AM

The popularity of the Angus breed has, in some ways, been a contributing factor to what has been described by some as a contamination of the gene pool. The problem has developed as many breeders, both large and small, have sold animals as breeding stock that should have, for many different reasons, gone in the food chain.

Winfred, SD  |  October, 19, 2012 at 09:54 AM

We work with both Limousin and Angus cattle. We have raised both as straightbreds and both reciprocal crosses. One only has to observe the increased vigor at birth of the crossbreds to accept that heterosis is real even if you don't want to accept the research. Without touting the good or bad of any particular breed, the increase in pounds weaned per cow exposed by crossbreeding is undeniable. Along the same line, wwe need to go beyond the packer and ask the consumer what they want and produce it. The auto industry didn't do this in the 70's and look where they went. Working with a branded beef program gives me contact with consumers outside rural America that most producers do not have. They ask for a lean, tender, high quality eating experience consistently. They do not want a high fat product, even if the fat is marbling. They have been told lean is good and choice is good. They usually think choice means leaner. Marbling has little if any correlation to tenderness. It is a measure of management, not tenderness.

sam massey    
October, 19, 2012 at 10:02 AM

Of course the Angus guys support streight breeding. Most of the cow herd is now Angus &the using bulls of other breeds cuts into their bull sales.

Dave Lamenzo    
Bloomfield, CT  |  October, 19, 2012 at 10:10 AM

10/19/12 Sure, go angus as the AAA is touting, and end up with a truckload of genetic abnormalities and related problems.

mo  |  October, 19, 2012 at 10:18 AM

Without a doubt the Angus Association has contributed a lot to the beef industry in the US. But in the same breath one can say that they have also contributed much to the problems and shortcoming that we now face. (namely yield grade issues and feed efficiency problems in some lines that go ignored by the association) For 40 years science has touted the benefits of hybrid vigor in beef cattle. One cannot count the studies done that have reinforced this claim. The fact that a cross bred brood cows longevity is superior to any purebred, stands alone as enough reason to utilize the benefit in the commercial segment. The AAA has positioned itself as an organization with a lot of influence and a lot of money. Good for them. However when an organization has those advantages they tend to believe they can run rough shod over common sense and research to promote their own agenda. (kind of like the government) Count me out. I'll stick with common sense and the research.

Lee Leachman    
Colorado  |  October, 19, 2012 at 11:05 AM

Great starter, Greg. I think that the actual evidence in the market place is that ranchers believe that there are two paths to profitability: straightbreed with Angus or crossbreed. I think they are right. Our data suggests that today's Angus are highly competitive from birth through slaughter. They are the only major breed that can place a significant percentage of offspring in the CAB and Prime grade categories. New data from CSU confirms that instrument graded quality grades are great predictors of eating satisfaction. This makes me believe that the long term premiums for Choice / CAB / Prime will continue. Additionally, it is now possible to get upwards of 75% of a set of carcasses into the CAB/Prime grades. This works. The challenge is that many ranchers sell at weaning. To make the money on Angus, they must be paid a significant premium at weaning. The challenge to the Angus Association is to add even more value to the highest quality calves. Without the premium, ranchers should definitely favor the crossbreeding route. Today's hybrids and composites offer more additive genetic merit than ever. They unquestionably produce cows that will wean more pounds per cow exposed. They also give up a little bit of the highest marbling grades unless they are HIGHLY selected for marbling. The net net is that today, ranchers have two roads to profitability: straightbreed high quality Angus (or Red Angus) or crossbreed with highly selected composites/hybrids. In both cases, the key is using the RIGHT bulls and hitting the RIGHT management and market targets.

Texas  |  October, 19, 2012 at 11:16 AM

No, crossbreeding is not a free lunch. But it is a cheap lunch. Marbling is just one factor in the profit equation. And the only way to benefit from it is to retain ownership through grid marketing. For the vast majority of cow-calf producers, their only benefit comes indirectly from the few cents a pound that black calves bring. Unless the industry develops a better way to get market signals from consumer all the way back down to ALL cow-calf producers, marbling will be irrelevant in most cow-calf producer's operation. The Angus association should be satisfied with their current dominant position.

mo  |  October, 19, 2012 at 11:36 AM

The good news for the AAA is that they probably can get this pulled off. They certainly have the means. The bad news is as long as they keep finding more genetic defects and keep treating that discovery process as a profit center for the association, they will eventually put all their breeders out of business.

Nebraska  |  October, 19, 2012 at 05:38 PM

Wow! The arrogance is astounding but really not surprising. This should not fly- as any cow man that pays attention will know the truth. The problem is... money can buy it's own truth. It would be shocking to see the Drovers Journal go any further than they did in coming close to being seen as critical of the Angus association. Most beef journals will do what ever they can to promote the largest beef breed advertiser. The value of Gelbvieh, South Devon, Tarentaise!, and other small breeds will continue to be pushed out by money and availability issues despite the tremendous good they do in their niches. By the way, when did it become popular (and needed) to heavily season a steak? When Angus dominated the beef with their excellent branding efforts. It is not the angus genetics that did it for angus popularity, it was the great leadership and vision at AAA.

Florida  |  October, 19, 2012 at 10:21 PM

AAA won't be saying that in any Florida cattle publications unless its next to the Baxter Black commentary in the comedy section. There is no better cow in the Gulf Coast region than the F1 Brahman x English.

Florida  |  October, 19, 2012 at 10:22 PM

AAA won't be saying that in any Florida cattle publications unless its next to the Baxter Black commentary in the comedy section. There is no better cow in the Gulf Coast region than the F1 Brahman x English.

Florida  |  October, 19, 2012 at 10:22 PM

AAA won't be saying that in any Florida cattle publications unless its next to the Baxter Black commentary in the comedy section. There is no better cow in the Gulf Coast region than the F1 Brahman x English.

Canada  |  October, 20, 2012 at 10:51 AM

I agree that there is some contamination of the gene pool, but with the use of EPD's, genetic markers and common sense there's no reason for these poor genetics to be purchased. I guess all I'm saying is the fault for these poor genetics entering the gene pool is the fault of the breeders and buyers alike.

Canada  |  October, 20, 2012 at 11:01 AM

There is no arguing the science of hybrid vigor and the benifits of its implementation in a beef herd. One thing to keep in mind though is the availablity of different quality breeders in your area. I run a herd of black and black baldies and also run black bulls. The reason I run all blacks is because in my area the only breeder utilizing AI technology to any extent is a black angus breeder. I could travel miles and source genetics from another breed, but in my situation I believe the high quality genetics gained from this operation bred black on black puts me further ahead than purchasing a bull of inferior genetic quality from another breed just to get hybrid vigor. Every operation is different, this is what works on ours.

Mark Sanders    
Knoxville  |  October, 20, 2012 at 01:09 PM

and what about heat tolerance and drought adaptability???

Arizona  |  October, 20, 2012 at 06:29 PM

AMEN, Bill! But will anyone listen or learn???

Paul Marchant    
Idaho  |  October, 20, 2012 at 10:20 PM

Very well stated.

MN  |  October, 22, 2012 at 06:58 AM

Cross breeding is such old news for commercial herds. Not sure why it stirs folks up so much? I realize that for a smaller producer who retains heifers, it pushes you towards AI...

Mn  |  October, 22, 2012 at 07:02 AM

Why does Drovers print Sterling market report with high for bred heifers at $1270 hd when more than 30 unregistered angus bred heifers sold for $1600 at local sales barn on 10/1/12 and on same day a dozen more sold for $1375?

Nebraska  |  November, 07, 2012 at 04:53 PM

Hmmm. I have a hard time believing anyone or any breed association could be that arrogant or egotistical to advocate against what has been time proven on many levels. Growing up I lived in what was billed as the largest area in the world for Hereford cattle. The breeders at this time had a indentical attitude much the same as the attitude now expressed by the AAA. It wasn't long before the Hereford breed took a major tumble. There is an old saying that if you want to know the future you should look to the past. I think that this stance by the AAA sooner or later is going to cause the Angus breed to stub its toe!

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