What's In a Breed?
30 Aug '15
If you ask my wife, she will tell you I spend far too much time contemplating the specifics of cattle performance ... actually ... cattle in general (she's right by the way). It stems from the desire of every breeder, regardless of breed to focus on marketable traits, the problem with this approach is that we are all breeding to the same specifications which means that we breed away from the distinct advantages our cattle inherently possess.

Breed Diversity

Over the past 100 years we have seen enormous change within breeds, trends from the show ring often became market demands which inevitably changed the breeders direction.
My favourite resource highlighting change in cattle is Harlan Ritchie's Beef Review. The article shows the history of English breeds starting out as large, deep bodied animals transforming into the belt buckle cattle in the 50's & 60's and then back again.
More recently we have seen once prominent breeds falter and reduce in numbers due to the American Angus Association recognising the value in selling a brand directly to the consumer. Almost two decades of effort went into marketing the product before it became the juggernaut it is today.
The success of the Angus brand came at the cost of the once prominent Hereford breed, consumers didn't recognise Hereford cattle by name of course but were familiar with the white face bull plaques proudly hanging in the front window of every butcher shop.
Although the success of the Angus breed was largely due to marketing efforts there was still merit to the improved eating quality of the product, the breed focused on quality traits and embraced breeding technology to maximise gains while other breeds continued to rely on visual assessments.
This brings us to the point of this article: Development is necessary, improvement is necessary. With a growing population we need to find ways to produce more efficiently and why wouldn't we focus on eating quality while we are at it? But at what cost?
I don't think it's a secret that many of our registered herds have been crossed. These days we have Simmentals that look like Herefords & Angus, Herefords that present Simmental genetics, Limousines developed a black gene (as did many breeds) and my favourite is when I see a pure Angus herd showing horns here and there.
I may be too precious about preserving genetic diversity, but the analogy I like to use is when paint is mixed - mix enough colours and the result is always an odd brown colour - I feel this way about livestock genetics, cross enough and we will end up with one breed and many of the distinct qualities that made each breed valuable will be lost.
  1. Hereford - Finishing ability, calving ease, early maturity, docility.
  2. Angus - Mothering ability, calving ease, natural marbling, early maturity.
  3. Charolais - Weight gain, carcass value, fertility, muscle expression.
My point here is that each breed brings something to the table, traits that we don't want to lose, in fact, traits we should exploit while developing composite breeds.

For Best Results - Cross

Rather than trying to move all breeds toward the same specification, why not exploit the genetic diversity of each breed and cross for production? We know that a first cross will yield the greatest gain, subsequent crosses will lose potency and ultimately result in a composite breed which is unlikely to outperform it's origins.
Recently, we have seen several trials promoting the value in crossing and the results speak for themselves. We are seeing strong gain in first cross progeny which should not be ignored.

Below is an example from the Red Devon Breeders Association of New Zealand.

Department of Agriculture Trial - New Zealand

In this crossbreeding trial the following results were obtained where market bulls were used in field trials over approximately 60 cows of each breed, and the progeny killed and assessed. These cattle were all run by The Department of Lands and Survey under identical conditions. The Devon sired calves returned a significant dollar advantage.

Breed $
Devon x88026435%
Limousin x82423727%
Simmental x80325823%
Shorthorn x79624120%
Hereford x74424114%
Santa Gertrudis x71426510%

A couple of observations in reading this data -
  1. Statistics are a wonderful form of manipulation, most studies pick and choose the numbers that best present the desired outcome.
    I'm not questioning the value of crossing, simply the order in which the cross values are presented due to the source of the data.
  2. Angus are the baseline because they are currently the gold standard in profitability.

In Summary

Genetic diversity is worth protecting! Not only for the love of our breed but to ensure distinct genetic ingredients to develop more efficient cattle for an ever growing population. Despite the gains we can make by cheekily applying back paddock shenanigans, developing a breed while retaining its purity is far more important in the big picture.

Contributed by James Cullis

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08 Oct '15  Green Eggs & Ham!
30 Aug '15  What's In a Breed?
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