Which breed of dairy cow can produce the largest volumes of milk? And which breed will give you the highest amount of milk per kg bodyweight? And the best quality of milk as measured by butterfat and protein percent? These are questions that are easy to answer and few will deny that Holsteins and Jerseys will win above challenges.

Much more difficult to answer is the question about the most profitable dairy cow. Under good management and in temperate climatic zones above mentioned breeds will fully satisfy their owners. Few of us dairy farmers can provide these close to perfect conditions needed, in particular when dairying is attempted in parts of Kenya with more challenging climatic and environmental conditions.

“Malgudo” is pictured here in her 8 lactation on the day her lifetime production surpassed 70.000 liters of milk. She is a three-way cross with 62,5% Brown Swiss, 25% Sahiwal and 12,5% Ayrshire blood.

How profitable is a cow that produces record-breaking amounts of milk, but only lasts a single lactation or two at the most? In my personal opinion the most accurate way to measure & judge a cow’s true value & adaptability to adverse and challenging conditions is her longevity. Not only is a long-living cow the most profitable animal for her owner (every cow requires a minimum productive time to amortize her purchase or rearing costs and highest yields are not reached prior to her third to fifth lactation), but she is living proof that she can survive (stay healthy) and thrive (produce and most importantly reproduce) under difficult climatic conditions (heat stress, drought) and severe disease challenges (the list of tropical cattle diseases is shear endless…).

“Worera” is now 17 years old, has calved 14 times with 15 calves born, all from AI (she has never been served by a bull in her life!) and has produced over 75.000 liters of milk so far. She is a four-way cross with 50% Jersey, 25% Boran, 12,5% Sahiwal and 12,5% Guernsey blood.

Although purebred dairy cows (in particular Holsteins managed under favorable environmental and climatic conditions) can achieve comparable production levels, this high level of productivity can most easily be achieved by crossbreeding.

Practical Crossbreeding

Crossbreeding can be practiced by all and will achieve positive results much faster than traditional (pedigree) purebreeding systems. Please do not mistake planned and controlled “crossbreeding” as propagated in this article with uncontrolled mating of your cows with any (no matter which breed) bull of unknown quality, parentage or ancestry. It is the latter which has brought the idea of crossbreeding bad publicity and made it to be shunned or even seen with disdain by much of the purebreeding community.

You can start crossbreeding with any cow of any breed, but keep in mind that the better the cow the faster and more noticeable positive results will be. A cow will transmit additional genetic material to her calf (which is stored extra-nuclear in her egg), so all her offspring will usually resemble her more than their sire. A calf resulting out of mating a Holstein dam to a Boran sire will be a much better dairy cow and produce more milk than a calf born to a Boran dam by a Holstein sire. On the other hand latter will be hardier and exhibit more resistance to heat stress and disease.

Crossbreeding heifers should be practiced with much care and as a rule only proven easy calving sires or preferably Jersey bulls should be used on them. Often heterosis will cause crossbred calves to be born much larger and heavier than calves out of purebred matings.

Only the best quality proven bulls or sires (they don´t necessarily have to be purebred) of known ancestry should be used, which will be greatly facilitated by using artificial insemination.

Many farmers who practice purebreeding complain of problems in their herds that might be explained by a certain degree of inbreeding depression, which will appear in any purebred population over time: High mortality rates in both adults and calves, slow growth, reduced fertility, high susceptibility to disease and parasites which is often due to reduced resistance and stress related factors, reduced production & profitability and a greatly reduced number of lactations. Most of these problems will be reduced or even solved when crossbreeding is introduced into such herds.

“Sylvia” is also 17 years old and has completed her 12thlactation at over 82.000 liters lifetime milk production. In her long productive life her daily peak yields exceeded 37 liters per day and she is due to calve again in November 2012. She is a three way cross of 50% Holstein, 44% Sahiwal and 6% Ayrshire blood.

Small, but still noticeable improvements will be achieved when Finish Ayrshire, Swedish Red, Red Holstein or MRI semen is used on purebred Ayrshire herds and the resulting offspring will still have the appearance of purebred Ayrshires. The herd will fully retain its homogeneity while still profiting from some hybrid-vigor

Greater improvements, which will also cause more diversity (in shape and color) in the resulting offspring, will be achieved when crossing, for example, Holsteins to Jerseys, Ayrshires to Brown Swiss, Guernseys to Fleckvieh, etc. Any kind of combinations are possible and are limited only by your imagination.

The greatest improvements in lifetime profitability can be obtained when purebred Bos Taurus cows (all European breeds) are crossed to Bos Indicus (Zebu type) sires. There are Bos Indicus breeds that are specifically selected for milking potential as Sahiwal, Red Sindhi and Gir, and incredible results can be achieved when their best sires are used on high potential European bred dams.

The resulting offspring are called F1 hybrids and are best mated to a third, unrelated breed. This kind of crossbreeding is called rotational crossbreeding and can be continued indefinitely, with any number of breeds incorporated and always the cows should be mated to a sire of a breed that is least related to their own breeding. For practical reasons seldom more than three to four breeds are used.

Another approach to retain a good degree of heterosis is to stabilize a crossbred population into a new synthetic or “composite” breed, which will be further explained in the following topic.

The Theory behind Crossbreeding

Crossbreeding occurs when males and females of different breeds (or even species) are mated and the resulting offspring are then called crossbreds or “hybrids”.

The hybrid offspring display varying amounts of both breed complementation and “hybrid vigor” or heterosis which is measured as the performance advantage of crossbreds over the production average of both their parents. Occasionally, crossbreds will perform even better than either parent. However heterosis should be measured against the average of the parental breeds. Heterosis can impact many traits, but is especially useful in improving performance in lowly heritable traits, such as productivity, fertility, adaptability, vitality and especially longevity.

The less favorable for dairy production the environment is, the higher the expression of above traits will be. In particular Coast and other low lying dry and hot areas are most suitable for maximizing benefits from crossbreeding.

The greater the genetic difference between the parental breeds the larger and more dramatic the expression of heterosis will be. Maximum heterosis is therefore found in crosses between Bos Indicus (Zebu) cattle and Bos Taurus (European origin) cattle because they do not share any recent common ancestors.

Hybrid and Composite Breeding

While hybrids and composites are both crossbreds, hybrids are generally considered to be F1 or first crosses of purebred parents and composites are a stable inter-mating population originating from crossbred parents. Composites usually incorporate a combination of breeds, each of which contribute a characteristic desirable for good performance or environmental adaptability and designed to retain heterosis in future generations without crossbreeding and then being maintained as a purebred. Zebu breeds have contributed to several composites because of their adaptability to hot climates.

Whereas crossbreeding with the goal to produce hybrids has revolutionized production systems from crop farming to commercial livestock keeping as in poultry (meat and eggs), pig keeping and even some beef production systems, science has shown that long-term crossbreeding of dairy cattle for the sake of utilizing heterosis is very difficult unless the intent is to synthesize a new breed.

Many breeds that are considered purebreds now are actually composites if you go back far enough in time. The understanding of genetics involved in crossing breeds of cattle has progressed enormously in the last 15 years. We now better understand the results of producing synthetic lines of cattle, which can be maintained on an ongoing basis when interbred, hence stabilizing new composite breeds. So, composite cattle are a range of new breeds or new lines of cattle bred specifically to improve hybrid vigor. A planned mating scheme is designed to combine the desirable traits of two or more breeds into one “package” (or composite).

Although composite breeds do not sustain as high a level of heterosis as F1 hybrids do, they still offer some heterosis, with the amount depending on the original breed composition. As more breeds contribute to the composite, retained individual and maternal heterosis increases.

Composite breeds offer the opportunity to use genetic differences among breeds to achieve and maintain the performance level for such traits as climatic adaptability, growth rate and mature size, carcass composition, milk production and fertility that is optimum for a wide range of production environments and market scenarios. Further, composite breeds may provide herds of any size an opportunity to use heterosis and breed differences simultaneously.

Some amazing facts about cross- and composite breeding:

  • “KIAN” who was leading the Dutch Holstein charts is actually a 75% Holstein * 25% MRI crossbred
  • Some of New Zealand’s top index sires over the years have been crossbreds, having better breeding values than either purebred Holsteins or Jerseys. Semen of crossbred sires is marketed there just as intensively as that of purebred sires
  • The very same imported Norwegian Red sire (Norwegian Red is not even considered a true breed yet…) was adopted and used by an Ayrshire breeders society as “purebred” Ayrshire and also extensively used by Dairy Shorthorn breeders in their pedigree breeding program
  • Composite dairy breeds are primarily found in hot tropical countries or where cheap pasture based production is mandatory for the farmer’s survival as for example “Jamaica Hope” in the Caribbean, “Australian Friesian Sahiwal” and “Australian Milking Zebu” in tropical Australia and…
  • “Girolando” in Brazil who where developed through combined effort of farmers and an initiative of the Brazilian Government and who now produce 80% of the country’s milk
  • “Girolando” can produce in excess of 22.000 litres of milk per 365 days lactation!

Most of above are extracts from http://www.makitosha.com/cows.htm where much more information about this subject can be found for the interested reader!