When the American Gelbvieh Association (AGA) established its value-based partnership with ConAgra, Inc. in 1995, they couldn't have predicted how significantly the Gelbvieh Alliance would impact their approach to the seedstock business. "We made the non-traditional decision to accept all breeds and breed crosses when the Gelbvieh Alliance was founded," says AGA's executive director, Don Schiefelbein. "That was seven years ago. Now we have a large carcass database representing over 270,000 cattle from all major breeds and crosses." The Association's database includes 14,539 Gelbvieh-sired cattle. They also have carcass records on 35,936 Angus and Red Angus-sired cattle ranging from 50 percent to purebreds. "Data doesn't lie," Mr. Schiefelbein says, "so pricing different cattle types on our grid proved highly educational. AGA's new Balancer(r) [registered Gelbvieh x Angus hybrids] and Smart-Cross(tm) programs were a direct result of the synergy we observed between Gelbvieh and Angus genetics through the Alliance."

AGA effectively had a bird's-eye view on what traits mattered in grid marketing. Strengths and weaknesses of different breeds became readily apparent. Even-tually, they formulated a simple but effective genetic recipe: one part marbling and one part muscling to produce cattle that earn consistent value-based premiums. "We learned not to become single-trait extremists when selling cattle on grids," Mr. Schie-felbein says. "The goal should never be to produce cattle which excel in only one trait, like marbling or muscling. It's more important to have a balance of marbling and muscl-ing. That's how commercial producers should structure their genetics...so their cattle can succeed in a variety of market environments, and still perform well in the feedlot."

Marbling leads to higher quality grades, resulting in premiums for Choice and Prime beef. Muscling is beneficial, because heavy-muscled cattle earn premiums for more Yield Grade 1s and 2s, and they dollar-up well through heavier carcass weights. "Black and Red Angus are marbling specialists," Mr. Schiefelbein says. "They're the best source of marbling genetics. Conversely, Continental cattle-like Gelbvieh-are the best source of muscling, leanness and pounds. But high-percentage Continentals experience lower quality grades." (See table).

At the same time the Gelbvieh Alliance was busy documenting the complementary nature of Gelbvieh and Angus genetics, the Association saw a trend among Gelbvieh breeders. Tom Brink, former AGA executive director, recalls that by 1997 and 1998, Gelbvieh x Angus and Gelbvieh x Red Angus seedstock were becoming available in significant numbers. "Gelbvieh members started the movement toward hybrid seedstock several years before the Association formed its Balancer program. Our members were attentive to the commercial bull market. They knew demand for hybrids and composites was on the rise," Mr. Brink says. "AGA recognized it had a growing number of breeders raising and marketing Gelbvieh x Angus hybrid bulls. So we wrote a set of qualifying rules to ensure pedigree and performance documentation on these hybrids... and Balancers were born."

Ultrasound scans collected on yearling Gelbvieh, Angus and Balancer bulls show that Balancers do combine marbling and muscling (see chart). "Like the name infers, they are a well balanced genetic package," Mr. Schiefelbein emphasizes. "These scan data were collected in three separate herds. All three showed the same relative quantities of marbling and muscle by breed type. Gelbvieh had the largest ribeyes, Angus, the most intra-muscular fat, and Balancers demonstrated a desirable combination of both traits."

Back to the future with hybrid seedstock
AGA is one of the first major breed associations to formally structure a program on hybrid seedstock. Their SmartCross crossbreeding manual explains how Gelbvieh, Angus or Red Angus and Balancer bulls can be used to harness the benefits of hybrid vigor, while maintaining a desirable balance of complementary breeds in commercial cow herds. But is this concept really new? "In one sense, it is," observes Mr. Schiefelbein. "However, the Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in Clay Center, Nebraska should be credited for laying the foundation we're building on today."

Indeed, MARC conducted extensive research on hybrids and composites from the late 1970s through early 1990s. "One of our objectives was to determine if we could use composite cattle to maintain a hybrid vigor over multiple generations," says Dr. Keith Gregory, research geneticist at MARC. "We also wanted to create balanced biological types (appropriate combinations of Continental and British breeds) that would fit a given production environment and still meet necessary carcass requirements. MARC looks at breed differences as an important genetic resource, because no one breed has all the traits we want at the levels we want them."

"Besides the benefit of retained heterosis, we concluded-after 15 calf crops-that hybrids and composites are an effective way to manage breed complementarity and breed composition. And resulting offspring were no more variable than purebreds for the important bio-economic traits," says Dr. Gregory.

"Going into the project, we thought the 50 percent British by 50 percent Continental composite (named MARC II) might be a good general purpose type,"recalls Dr. Larry Cundiff, also a researcher at MARC. "It pretty much turned out that way."

Convenience and simplicity are also good reasons to use hybrids/composites, according to both Mr. Schiefelbein and Dr. Gregory. "Very few commercial producers are set up to correctly manage a rotational crossbreeding program, because it takes too many separate pastures. Using Balancers is less complicated than rotational crossing. And you get hybrid vigor, plus an easy way to stabilize the Gelbvieh and Angus percentages in your herd, " Mr. Schiefelbein says.