My November column advocated the concept of trinity in crossbreeding—breeding for heterosis, quality grade and yield grade. The idea was to create crossbred cattle that conform to the requirements of value based marketing, a concept that is now growing rapidly and playing out in the form of carcass-merit pricing.
“Good idea,” said several respondents to the column, “but how do you do that?”
As I considered the questions of my respondents, it dawned on me that something new is and should be occurring in thinking about crossbreeding. Producers are beginning to respond to carcass-merit pricing by looking more closely at breed choices at the terminal end, not just the breeding end.
Value-based marketing was an ill-defined concept when crossbreeding began to develop in the 1960s. The American herd of that time consisted mainly of small-framed British breeds—Hereford, Angus and Shorthorn. An urgent need had developed to increase the scale and efficiency of those cattle. That’s when large-framed, high-yielding breeds began to be imported from Continental Europe. If anything was value-based at that time, it was cattle breeding.
The fruits of crossbreeding (involving crossbred cows) were shown to be over 20 percent each for calf weights, cow life and lifetime productivity. The root of all of these gains was called heterosis, a genetic phenomenon that permits the sum of an end product to be greater than its parts. Crossbreeding, it was said, could reduce breakeven costs by 10 percent to 12 percent. And this could increase per-cow margins by $100 per year.
The part of the heterosis story that attracted the most attention of cowmen was the increase in weaning weights—30 pounds to 50 pounds per calf. As a result, the maximization of production, not optimization, became the driving force in breed selection. What got lost in the shuffle was the principle of “complimentarity”—the requirement that breeds be selected on how well the strengths of each complimented the weaknesses of the others. And thus, producers ended up focusing on the $30 to $50 they could pick up per calf on weaning weight while neglecting the rest of the $100 total benefit.
All of this, the breeding pasture thing, has a set of economics that in general cease to apply when a steer leaves the home ranch. The terminal end has its own set of economics. The packer’s pricing grid is blind to weaning weights, cow longevity and lifetime productivity. The grid only wants to know the quality grade, yield grade and size of a carcass. Heterosis has little to do with these factors but breed choices do.
Selecting breeds based on their “complimentarity” is an essential approach but is not the complete approach. This is illustrated by data summarizing the first four cycles of the extensive germplasm evaluation program being conducted at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in Nebraska. These data show, for example, that while the crossing of two British breeds can result in nicely marbled, Choice grade carcasses, backfat levels can be too high and retail product cutout can be too low. Conversely, when Continental European bulls are used on crossbred British cows, retail cutout can be high but marbling can be too low resulting in a Select grade.
If you accept these data at face value, creating the optimal terminal animal is not an easy task. Your job must begin in your breeding pasture and must include not only the selection of breeds for your crossbreeding program but of bloodlines and individuals within these lines. In fact, the selection of bloodlines and individuals may be the only way to complete the creation of the optimal animal.
There is no doubt about it, it is time to include the terminal animal in your crossbreeding plan. Do this effectively and you will not only be rewarded in the breeding pasture but on the rail as well.
To contact Fred Knop, write Drovers or send e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org.