Most milk producers strive to breed super high yielding dairy cows, but while they are often are perceived as being more efficient and productive, they bring with them a new set of challenges for even the most proficient of dairymen.

As a result, such animals are not always the most profitable and one of the reasons behind the development of the ProCross – a three-breed rotational cross-breeding system combining the Holstein, Viking Red and Montbeliarde. The Holstein is crossed to the Viking Red with the resultant progeny to a Montbeliarde and her heifer calf back to a Holstein.

Each resultant medium-sized cow has been shown in trials to be healthier, more fertile, and longer lasting than a pure Holstein, and she's easier managed. Furthermore, such cows have shown first and second generation crosses being 13% and 9% more profitable, respectively, than their pure black and white rivals, according to Professor Les Hansen a geneticist from the University of Minnesota.

Speaking at a ProCross webinar, he told delegates that there had been a decline in herd fertility in Holsteins in the States as a result of heavily selecting for production and type over the past 20 years, which he said had resulted in a large percentage of tall, thin cows.

Furthermore, he added that inbreeding had intensified since 2011, when genomics were introduced.

"The truth of the matter is, inbreeding has become a global problem outwith New Zealand which is based more on a diverse range of genetics and milk from grass," he said.

"No matter how deep you dig into a pedigree, most Holsteins are descendants of five sires – O-Man, Mogul, Planet, Shottle and Supersire," said Professor Hansen.

Adding to those challenges, he pointed out that the higher the percentage of inbreeding in an animal the higher the costs related to cow fertility, stillbirths, overall health, mortality and longevity are. In contrast, cross breeding reduces all those often forgotten about expenses.

Born and brought up exhibiting and breeding pedigree dairy cows, Professor Hansen was not condemning pure breeding, but rather highlighting the benefits of cross breeding.

Three-way cross of ProCross cattle involves the Holstein, Viking Red and Montbeliarde

Three-way cross of ProCross cattle involves the Holstein, Viking Red and Montbeliarde

"Genetic improvement results from the best selection of the best AI bulls within a breed, whereas cross-breeding complements the genetic improvement within breeds.

"Heterosis, or hybrid vigour from cross-breeding is a bonus on top of the genetic improvement which can result in production rising 4-10% and fertility, health and survival traits increasing more than 10%."

His statements are based on the back of a 10-year study at the University of Minnesota, comparing the ProCross with the pure-bred Holstein, which revealed that cross-breds overwhelmingly performed better than their pure herd mates on ever parameter.

The trial enrolled 3550 Holsteins in 2008 from seven dairy farms for a 10-year period with each unit having at least 250 pure Holsteins to compare results. Cows were kept in their commercial herds either to be crossed or bred pure.

The results were overwhelmingly in favour of the cross-breds which lasted longer, were more fertile, produced a higher percentage of milk solids and were more efficient at converting feed into milk.

"Feed is a dairy farmer's No 1 cost and the Procross has been shown to be more feed efficient, with dry matter intakes 4.8% less in her first lactation and 6.5% less in her second and third with no difference in milk fat and protein produced," said Professor Lansen.

Furthermore, he pointed out that such animals also last an extra lactation, produce more live calves and calves of better quality than their pure-bred black and whites.

This Professor Lansen said, was more to do with the stature of the cross-bred which tends to be shorter, more angular and maintain more body condition and better health than the pure Holstein.

Some 3550 cattle were involved in the 10-year trial to find out the benefits of heterosis in dairy cattle

Some 3550 cattle were involved in the 10-year trial to find out the benefits of heterosis in dairy cattle

Overall, the results revealed that cross-breds earned +$0.34, or 25p per day of life compared to their pure-bred Holstein over the 10-year study as a result a 4% reduction in cost with only a 1% fall in revenue.

This higher profit was mostly influenced by reduced costs as a result of lower health and replacement costs, plus more calves born and calves of higher value in the market place.

Obviously, lifetime daily yield with ProCrosses was less than the pure Holstein, but it was only 1% down when they lasted on average an extra 147 days or 4.8months compared to their black and white rivals.

Most impressive was the fact that trial revealed lifetime fat plus protein was 346kg more with lifetime profitability 33% higher with the ProCross.

The ProCross breeding programme is also gaining foothold in the UK and around the world because of the complementary nature of the three breeds.

Dr Amy Hazel, lead author of the report, says: “The breeds used in the trial were very complementary, the Holstein offering production and udder traits; the Montbéliarde bringing fertility, body condition and strength; and the VikingRed featuring calving traits, udder health and fertility.

She added: “To ensure a fair comparison in the study, it was important that we used the best available genetics for each of the sire breeds, including the pure Holstein.

“Hybrid vigour is maintained at around 86% in a three-way cross breeding programme,” she said adding that the lower replacement cost, lower health treatment cost, and higher calf value were the three most influential income and expense items which led to the higher profitability ProCross cattle.

“Both cross breds and their Holstein herdmates in each commercial farm were comingled within pens and feed intakes could not be collected for each cow in our trial,” she explains.

“However, a separate study at the university from 2019 monitored feed intakes and observed up to a +8% improvement in feed conversion efficiency in ProCross cattle, compared with their Holstein herdmates.

“If we apply those results to the feed cost during lactation of cows in our study, we find the increase of daily profit for the ProCross cows rises from $0.34 (25p) to $0.66 (48p) compared with their Holstein herd mates,” she says.

“In an era in which we must look carefully at the resources used, as well as the costs of producing any human food, these are important considerations,” she says. “Producing around the same amount of milk, fat and protein with a lower turnover of stock, fewer interventions to maintain health and fertility and potentially less feed is an important advantage in these

crossbred cattle.”

Lifetime and daily profit comparisons of Holstein and cross-bred cattle in their first second generation

First generation Second generation

Lifetime profit

Holstein $2842 $2823

Cross-bred +$1068 +$920

(comparison to Holstein) +38% +33%

Daily profit

Holstein $3.74 $3.95

Cross-bred +$0.47 +$0.34

(comparison to Holstein) +13% +9%