The BreedCast - innovative dairy breeding in your ears

Episode 07 - Crossbreeding - Pick and mix the best genes

January 26, 2022 VikingGenetics Season 1 Episode 7
The BreedCast - innovative dairy breeding in your ears
Episode 07 - Crossbreeding - Pick and mix the best genes
Show Notes Transcript

Crossing different dairy breeds can give you an up to 9% higher daily profit. You get healthier, more fertile cows and a higher lifetime production. But what do you need to watch out for before and after you start crossbreeding?

In this episode, you get to hear from two breeding experts as they share their experiences and tips from helping farmers crossbreed around the world. 

Jakob Lykke Voergaard, Senior Product Manager VikingRed, VikingGenetics
Hielke Wiersma, Product Manager Cross, VikingGenetics

Louise Rønn Svane

Are you thinking about switching to crossbreeding in your dairy herd? If so, you're joining a growing movement of farmers around the world. Studies show that crossing dairy breeds can give you an up to 9% higher daily profit. You get healthier, more fertile cows and a higher lifetime production. But what do you need to watch out for before and after you start crossbreeding? In today's episode, we'll hear from two crossbreeding experts; Hielke Wiersma, product manager for VikingCross. And Jakob Lykke Voergaard, senior breeding manager for VikingRed. This is the BreedCast produced by VikingGenetics. I'm your host, Louise Roenn Svane. Hello and welcome Jakob and Hielke. And thanks for being with us today. Thank you very much. Nice to be here again. Thanks, Louise. Good to be here. Nice to have both of you in the studio. Hielke, let's start with you. Why do more and more farmers start crossbreeding? One of the things that dairy producers always are looking for is how to optimize their dairy production. One of the solutions for that is with crossbreeding because numbers of studies show that crossbreeding with different breeds gives a better profitability. It improves their health and fertility and boosts, in many cases, fat and protein. It's basically to optimize their profit, really. Wonderful. What are we looking at in terms of numbers? How big is crossbreeding around the world? Well, New Zealand is the biggest market in terms of crossbreeding. About half the cows there are crossbred and have been for many years. In our Nordic countries, it's about 8% in Denmark and Sweden and it's growing. And it is in New Zealand as well as in many other places. So it's something that's growing around the world. And why are we seeing the differences - like 50% compared to eight. That sounds like a lot. It is. I think in general in a production system like New Zealand fertility has been extremely important for them for many years because they do seasonal calving. So any boost they can give fertility especially is important and that's where they've seen that crossbreeding can help them with that. And also herds are very big in New Zealand - the average herd. So looking for more profit and especially in those systems fertility is important where crossbreeding can give a boost. And how is it that crossbreeding could boost fertility? There's a specific term that I learned from you; heterosis. What does that cover? Heterosis is when you combine two unrelated breeds. So, basically you would expect a parent average of the offspring and then that gives an additional bonus to that. Basically, you can compare it to two football teams where you have one defensive team and an offensive team. If you combine half of those two teams together, the same 11 players will do better. Basically that's the same with heterosis. And heterosis really boosts the health, it boosts fertility. Mainly the low heritable traits are boosted by heterosis. That's a nice example. Jakob, let's go over to you. How has crossbreeding evolved historically? Over the last many, many years crossbreeding has developed a lot. But if we're looking in cattle breeding, it's going slowly. If we look at other species as poultry and pigs, it has moved a lot faster. And if we go into those industries, they are crossing nearly all their animals all their production animals are crossed. And they would never go back because they've seen the benefit. They see the extra bonus, you get by heterosis. So, they know what's working best. So, they've done it for many, many years. And I'm sure they will keep on doing that. The cow breeding is a little bit more conservative, so it takes a little bit longer time. But it's also because of the generation interval is longer so if you start to do crossbreeding, it can take a long time to go back again. That's different. You can change faster in poultry and pigs. It takes a lot longer time in cattle breeding. So it's also a little bit about being careful what you're doing. It sounds like it is a bit of a big commitment in cattle breeding? Yeah, it's a lot bigger commitment because it will take many years before you see the result and it will take many years if you want to change anything before you see the results of the genes again. So you're saying that's part of the reason why there's been some hesitation and still is some question marks, a little bit of hesitation around crossbreeding? Yes, I think there's a little bit hesitation there, but it's also a kind of the image you want in production. If we go a little bit back in history, it was a lot like if you were starting crossbreeding, it was because there was poor management. You couldn't handle your herd. You need to do something else. People thought crossing is because they cannot manage cows, so they need to do something else. So crossing was only for bad farmers. But it's not. It's a very good way to get extra profit. But there's just a lot of hype about pure breeding, which has a big effect on you. And that's completely right, Jakob. I think also today we see many more herds that have very high management and 13-14-15,000 kilos of milk that start crossbreeding and utilizing that potential that's in that. So I think historically it has been like that you know, last resort for crossbreeding but that's really changing. So should I just start mix and match like different breeds if I want to get started with crossbreeding? Well, I think first of all, you need to look at your production system. Analyze that and think about what it is you're trying to achieve, basically. And then from there, choose the breeds that fit into those needs because different production systems will have different needs and different breeds can bring different strengths to the crossbreeding. So it's really about analyzing the production first and then making your choice of concept of breeds to work with after that. Yeah, that's correct. You have to look at your system and get everything to fit in there. But another thing we also see here with crossbreeding is the image and what's possible in the area. And the image from your neighbours is a big, big part in this where some places we see that if people start crossbreeding, others are looking a little bit down on those people until they see the result normally. How do you think the perception can be changed about crossbreeding for those who haven't quite seen the benefits yet? Hielke said that in Denmark and Sweden, 8% of the cows are crossbreeding cows. So it's not that many so many people don't really have any experience with crossbreeding. So when they see how it's working and see how well-managed farms can get extra profit and benefit out of crossbreeding, they will probably start doing it. But I think it's a little bit funny. We also see some farmers that maybe have a few crossbreeding cows and they have pure breeding and then suddenly they realize that the oldest cows and most long-lasting and giving most benefit are the crossbreeding cows. So it's also just let time show what they really can do. And many of those that have tried crossbreeding, you know, just dabbling around a little bit and saying, well, this might be something for me and I'll choose my lowest genetic level cows to start with. And try it out. And then as Jakob says, they might be the ones sticking around after a number of years. So even in this group of lower genetic value cows that some farmers start with and really give good results. And I think that's one of the things to change this mindset - to seeing is believing. And as more really progressive dairy producers are starting to utilize this, it becomes more natural and it becomes more accepted as well. And actually, you both work with two crossbreeding systems today, ProCROSS and VikingGoldenCross. Let's start looking at some of the options and also results of this. Hielke, what is ProCROSS and what are some of the benefits that you're seeing with this crossbreeding program? ProCROSS is what we call a three-breed rotational crossbreeding program. So, typically a dairy producer would start with the Holstein herd and breed that with VikingRed and then breed that cross to a Montbeliarde - Coopex Montbeliarde. And then that cross will go back to Holstein. And then you just keep on going in the loop. We have some exceptional results scientifically because we try to everything we do, you know, make sure that it's scientifically based. We have a large study from Minnesota where it really showed like you started saying 9% daily extra profit. And that comes through better health, better fertility, increased longevity. The longevity is immense. In these ProCROSS cows. And this was a study made in very high producing herds. How does each of the breeds contribute - the three breeds in ProCROSS? What makes ProCROSS very unique in my opinion is that the three breeds in it are very, very good at complementing each other. It's the strength and the weakness fitting very well together. So when you start, we have a Holstein herd, we put the VikingRed on it. So, we will boost with the fertility, with health and easy calvings. And then when we add the Montbeliarde, we will get more fertility, we will get more body strength, more body condition on the animals. And then when we go back to Holstein, we will get the production in and the type traits for the udders. So therefore, they benefit very much from each other strenghts. So you get a very good herd with some cows that are really functional. What system is ProCROSS suited for? ProCROSS is working very, very good in intensive systems where you really can push the animals and get maximum out of them. There they will work very, very well. So that's a very good place to have ProCROSS. And that's also why we see that it's big in countries like the US. It's growing in Denmark and Sweden and France, for example. So, in some of these areas, they're doing quite well. ProCROSS was developed in the US and a ten year study took place there. Hielke, I know you've got some actually quite interesting numbers. Can you mention some of the highlights of that study? What did that show? Well, the overall and most important thing, I think, is the extra daily profit of 9%, which is, you know... other studies have found the same kind of level. So, by making a choice of a different breeding program, you add 9% without any work, without anything - increased 9%. That's pretty good. And of course, that comes through an improved fertility, better conception rates, it comes through less health treatment costs. So, the cows are healthier. And also it boosts the longevity. It was 147 days extra in the herd - the ProCROSS cows compared to the pure Holsteins. And if you convert that to the number of heifers that you need in order to have your young stock, it's a huge improvement. And then the final thing which is quite important as well is that we saw up to 8% extra feed efficiency. So, basically they produce more fat and protein from the same feed compared to the Holsteins. A very important thing is also often when we say they're getting better in fertility and health and so on, but what about production - we are living off the milk? But the production was nearly the same. So you kept the production but you just increased all the functional traits. Really giving the extra benefit here and the extra profit. And if you're looking at lifetime profit, you increase that by 33%. So you can really get the cows to stay longer in the herd with the same production. It can really sound like we're slagging off the Holstein. We're not because in ProCROSS, Holstein is a vital element and that's really important to stress that without the Holstein, we wouldn't be able to achieve these results that we are because the Holstein is the breed that brings the most production and the confirmation. But then combined with the VikingRed and the Coopex Montbeliarde, it just gives that a boost. So, it's just important for me to say that we're not slagging off the Holstein. Often when we say we're starting with a Holstein, it's because it started, for example, in the US and they don't have purebred VikingRed, they don't have purebred Montbeliarde. So that's why it is that the Holstein we normally say we are starting with because it's coming in the country where they don't have the other breeds purebreeding. We also have herds in Denmark starting up ProCROSS in some of the animals. We have Montbeliarde herds in France that do the same, but it's in many countries as most Holstein. And that's why we normally say you are starting with that breed. And we have a whole podcast coming up on Holstein and all the attributes of that breed. So that's something to look forward to. You both work with another crossbreeding program, which is VikingGoldenCross, and two out of three breeds are similar to ProCROSS. Hielke, what's special about VikingGoldenCross and why is this program increasing in popularity? Well, the foundation is the same as with ProCROSS. So, the VikingGoldenCross is a three-breed rotational crossbreeding program as well. Starting with the Holstein and then the VikingRed, and then we include Jersey. And by including the Jersey, we naturally bring down the size. So, the result of this cross will be that they are smaller and it's really for a different type of farming system as well. So again, going back to what we talked about is analyzing what are your needs and then taking your decisions on the breeds of the concept from there. And where ProCROSS is more aimed towards the intensive systems. And that's also what we have in the studies. The VikingGoldenCross is more towards the grazing segment of the market where they're looking for a bit smaller cow. They are seasonal calving, typically. They're looking for that good fertility and the high fat and protein, which is important for them. So, two very different crossbreeding concepts. And we actually have a question from one of our listeners. This is from Theo in Alberta, Canada, and he wrote to us on Facebook. What results have you seen from VikingGoldenCross? Jakob? We've seen excellent results. Unfortunately, we don't have a scientific study on it like ProCROSS have. But we have seen a study from Australia where they have taken the Kiwi cross as we call it; the Holstein on Jersey. And they put on a red breed and they have seen a benefit there very much going from two to tree breeds. It's increased the fertility, kept the production in milk nearly the same, but increase also the fat and protein and then especially the fertility which is very important for the grazing segment. And we also have a Danish study showing the same, but it also shows - because we have the registration - a very large decrease in diseases. For example, when you have purebred Holstein compared to the VikingGoldenCross, you have a decrease of more than 40% in hoof diseases which is very important when you have the grazing system so that they can walk and manage walking many miles to get the grass. And I remember you telling me 90% of all the doses sold for VikingRed around the world is actually for crossbreeding. What makes VikingRed so appealing for crossbreeding? VikingRed is coming into the crossbreeding and giving a big boost to the calving traits and health traits. And then when we're looking at the Nordic condition, it's the economy equal breed. So, it doesn't matter if you have a Holstein or red, you're getting the same economy out of it. And when you're mixing those breeds and those strong traits with the red with the fertility, health and easy calvings, and you get an excellent combination for crossbreeding and then when you can combine with a third breed in different conditions, and that is very unique here because you have the Holstein, you have the red and then you decide, do I go for ProCROSS with the Montbeliarde, or we take a Jersey for the GoldenCross for the grazing. So you really can see a benefit of putting in the red. You can go in the direction you want. In places like New Zealand where sales are going quite well for us with the VikingRed, what they're looking for is a cow with a bit more body condition. They're looking for the size that the VikingRed can bring. They're kind of intermediate between the Holstein and the Jersey. And then they boost the fertility but also the heterosis again. So boosting the heterosis in the cross that they have and that's going quite well. Why are three breeds better than two? Well, basically because you get more heterosis. So when you go back and forth in two-breed rotations so to say, you get 67% heterosis. When you add a third breed, you get 86% so it's almost a 20% increase in heterosis by adding that third breed. And then one could say, well why not a fourth breed? But then you increase it again, but to 94%. So the increase of adding a fourth breed that can bring something additional to what you're looking for in terms of traits and stuff like that can be quite difficult. And so, that's where we kind of settled on three breeds which is the balance between combining different traits from different breeds and the heterosis level. And then also when you put in a fourth breed, you need to find a breed that is fitting your wishes, your production system, everything. Then you need to get four breeds that are suitable for the condition you're producing under. And it's hard to find an extra breed. And then you also have to remember that if you have four breeds, it takes a longer time before you have the rotation in the production system. So it's taking longer time before you get the boost in yield for the Holstein, the boost in VikingRed for fertility and health and so on. So by adding a fourth breed will take longer time in the rotation to get all the benefits from each breed. So sounds like three breeds are just about right. I want to thank Theo, by the way, for the question. And if any of you out there have questions for our BreedCast, we always want to hear from you. Please send us a note on Facebook or So in order to move forward and have a successful crossbreeding program, it sounds like I need to consider my needs, my production system. I should definitely consider combining three instead of the two breeds. We've talked about that. Now, let's try and take a look at the future of crossbreeding. Jakob, what can we expect in crossbreeding in the years to come? I think we can expect very, very much. We will have a very large increase in crossbreeding in the future. If we look at the political agenda right now, we're moving more and more towards organic farming. The EU have set a goal for organic production in 2030. And if you combine crossbreeding and organic production, you get a very big boost. The crossbreeding is boosting health and fertility. That is very important in organic farming. And you can hear in a podcasts we made earlier about organic farming, how important those things are there. Check that out. But we also have to look at the consumer. In the future, the consumer will also look more and more on animal welfare. They will look more on with climate and sustainability and so on. And crossbreeding can give a boost for it. For example, the 8% extra feed efficiency for the ProCROSS - the extra longevity. So we can have the cows for a longer time according to the climate. Hielke, what's the next big thing in crossbreeding? If I can just add to what Jakob just said. For the future, I don't think that the dairy producers will be able to just let these 9% extra daily profit slip. And I think that will naturally push dairy producers in that direction because we need to be more efficient all the time. And the more that the eyes are opened towards this efficiency boost with crossbreeding, that will for sure be boosted. And now I forgot your question completely. You answered it. So I said, what's the next big thing in crossbreeding. Jakob, I know you worked on the strategy for VikingRed. What do you focus on? We have four cornerstones in that strategy. And one of them is that the red breed should be very attractive for crossbreeding. And what we are working a lot with is value documentation showing that crossbreeding is working on a different condition. Farmers today, they want facts. They want the scientific studies showing that what they're doing is correct so that they know where they go with that direction. They will get a profit. It's working. And then we are looking into genomic selection for the crossbreeding. I think that will be a huge benefit in the future. Hopefully from 2022, it will be possible to do genomic test for crossbreeding animals and thereby the farmers working with crossbreeding can rate the animal genetically. It's not possible today. You just take your parent average see how they yield, but you have no idea of the genetic level in the animal. But by genomically testing the animals, you have a huge benefit of selection and then also combine it with use of beef semen; dairy and beef. And you can also combine it with sexed semen. So suddenly the crossbreeding herds also get all the benefits purebreeding has today. Plus the 9% extra profit. Hielke, how big is this going to be? What's your vision for crossbreeding in the future? Well, I think like Jakob mentioned in the beginning. Poultry and pigs and even the grass that the cows are eating is hybrid or crossbred. And they wouldn't dream of going back. All of them are doing it. So I believe that in the future this will be huge. I don't think the future progressive dairy producer will be able to not do it because we need to utilize that extra efficiency that's in that. And so I think it's bigger. I'm sure that it will be huge. It will be huge. Just remember one thing. We also need some farmers to have some purebred cows because without a very good purebred breeding program, we would not have crossbreeding. So we need to remember that pure breed and crossbreeding are going hand-in-hand together. And without one of them, the other one will not survive in the long run. So crossbreeding will increase a lot. But we also need to thank the people carrying out the purebreeding for the crossbreeding in the future. Thank you. Well, thanks for joining our BreedCast. We've looked at the advantages of crossbreeding. How you can get started and also what's coming up on the horizon. If you'd like to learn more, I encourage you to visit the crossbreeding and VikingGoldenCross pages on the VikingGenetics website. I want to thank both of you. Hielke Wiersma and Jakob Lykke Voergaard for sharing your knowledge and experience with us. It's been really interesting listening to you. And I want to thank everyone out there for listening. If you have an idea or question or anything in mind about cattle breeding that you'd like us to focus on in our upcoming episodes, please visit or write us a note on the VikingGenetics Facebook page. My name is Louise Roenn Svane. Please join me for the next BreedCast episode.