It's official – cross-bred cattle are more efficient, productive and more importantly profitable, than pure-bred Holstein dairy cows.

That was the overwhelming conclusion of the world’s longest running study comparing cross-bred dairy cows with pure-bred Holsteins, which demonstrated that ProCross cattle – a three-breed cross of Holstein, Montbeliarde and Viking Red – produce daily profits which are, on average, 9-13% greater than those from a pure Holstein.

The financial advantage of the ProCross was demonstrated to come from a range of factors including greater lifetime production of fat plus protein solids, better fertility, fewer health treatments, higher calf and cull values and improved rates of survival.

When production of fat plus protein was converted to a daily basis, the cross-bred cattle produced between 1% more for the two-breed crossbreds (Viking Red X Holstein and Montbeliarde X Holstein) and 1% less for the three-breed cross-breds, than their Holstein herd mates.

However, the substantial difference in the cross breeds’ economic performance stemmed from their lower costs of production. The cost savings were made through significantly lower reproductive costs (eg improved conception rate to first service by up to 8.7%, and up to 17 fewer days open), up to 23% lower health costs (particularly attributable to less mastitis and metabolic disease), and lower feed costs (during both lactation and the dry period).

Yet, the greatest single contributor to the lower expenses for the ProCross cattle came through their lower replacement costs. These, in turn, were explained by almost twice the level of survival to fourth lactation (41%) compared with the Holstein (22%).

Once all income (including milk quality penalties) and costs of production were considered, the two-breed cross made an average additional profit of up to 13% per day more than the Holstein, while the three-breed cross added 9% per day.

The trial, which was undertaken by researchers at the University of Minnesota, was the first to assess the benefits of cross breeding on such a scale and through such a highly structured breeding programme. Running over the course of 10 years, it has involved participation by around 2300 ProCross and 2000 Holstein cattle across seven herds. These were high-performance, commercial herds in which animals had the opportunity to express their genetic potential. For each of the three breeds, semen was used from high-ranking proven bulls, corrective breeding was carried out for conformation, and matings were protected against inbreeding. Average production (December 2017) across the herds was 13,587kg milk, 512kg fat and 426kg protein, and each herd surpassed standard benchmarks for the fertility expected of Holsteins.

Professor Les Hansen, who led the research, with participation by Dr Amy Hazel and Professor Bradley Heins, presented the findings to journalists and dairymen from 11 European countries in July.

Speaking during the ProCross Summit, he said: “The improved performance of the cross-bred cattle resulted from a combination of hybrid vigour (or heterosis) – which gives the out crossed animal better performance than the average of its parents – and the choice of breeds selected for the ProCross programme.

“The genetic effects contributed by each breed are complementary, each conferring attributes which balance another,” he continued. “For example, the Holstein brings production and udder traits; the Montbeliarde brings fertility, body condition and strength; and the Viking Red – itself an amalgam of the Swedish Red, Finnish Ayrshire, and Danish Red breeding programmes – brings calving traits, udder health and fertility.”

Motivating the research was said to be concern for the breeding direction in the Holstein and its dominance of international dairying.

Describing the breed as ‘almost a monoculture for milk production globally’, he said: “The Holstein industry has been tremendously successful in selection for milk production over the past 40 years but it has also selected strongly for larger body size and more angularity.

“Since all three of these traits have genetic antagonism with fertility, health and survival, the breed has experienced a rapid decline in these functional traits.”

Furthermore, he said the level of inbreeding at more than 8% in US Holstein females born in early 2019 was ‘unsustainable’, and continues to increase at an annual rate approaching 0.4%.

“This causes inbreeding depression – the opposite effect to hybrid vigour – which silently steals profit from dairy producers, particularly in traits which are not readily noticeable such as embryo loss, disease resistance and survival,” he said.

Sara Wiklert Petersson, chief sales officer from VikingGenetics, one of the partners in the ProCross programme which is a joint collaboration with Coopex Montbeliarde, praised the long-term commitment, the stringent oversight of the breeding programme and the ambition of the study undertaken by the team at the University of Minnesota and the participating farms.

“The study has officially confirmed what dairy farmers using ProCross around the world already knew – that these cattle are easier to manage and cost less to keep for the same level of performance,” she added.

ProCross benefits in Cheshire

Closer to home, the use of three-way cross breeding in dairy operations is also gaining momentum with an increasing number of farmers using the system.

Andy Williamson and his father run a herd of more than 600 cows on a 360-hectare dairy farm (194 hectares owned, and the rest rented) near Nantwich, Cheshire. A fourth generation dairy farmer, Andy and his predecessors were one of the first farming families to introduce North American Holstein cows into the area.

Five years ago, health problems were becoming unsustainable.

“We were facing problems with feet and legs and high culling rates, which was jeopardising the efficiency of the whole operation,” says Andy.

In their search for more efficient and healthier cows, they were introduced to the only scientifically proven cross-breed, ProCross – a combination of VikingRed, Montbeliarde and VikingHolstein.

After using ProCross, the genetics of 50% of the herd are from three-way cross breeding and the plan is to extend this to the whole herd.

The Williamsons work closely with VikingGenetics United Kingdom and the family are improving health, fertility and longevity in the herd.

Culling rate has been reduced from 34% to 28%” and average production now stands at 9500kg ECM, with 3.9% BF and 3.4% P.

The financial advantage of this cross was proven to come from a wide range of factors including greater lifetime weights of fat and protein, better fertility, fewer health treatments, higher calf and cull values, and improved rates of survival.