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Crossbreds help boost milk solids and fertility

A 10-year scientific study at the University of Minnesota has fuelled further debate on the benefits of crossbreeding. Bruce Jobson investigates the findings released in 2016.

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Viking Red cross Holstein – daughter of Orraryd.
Viking Red cross Holstein – daughter of Orraryd.

The 10-year programme, established at the University of Minnesota by Hazel, Heins and Hansen, involved a comparison between Holstein, Montbeliarde cross Holstein and Viking Red cross Holstein animals in eight high yielding herds.

 

The Viking Red breed is a result of combining genetic improvement programmes of the Swedish Red, Finnish Ayrshire and Danish Red populations (ProCross).

 

The objective of the study was to assess the profitability of crossbreds from a three-breed rotation programme of Holstein, Montbeliarde and Viking Red breeds.

 

The early results are based upon only first lactation performance of two breed crossbreds compared to pure Holsteins as the ProCross is already the result of a three-breed rotation. In the future, an analysis of health treatments will provide results once the animals complete at least three lactations.

 

There were nine key conclusions from the study:

1 The first was Montbeliarde-cross cows produced 3% more actual fat plus protein kg production during the first 305 days than pure Holsteins. Viking-cross cows produced 1% more fat plus protein kg production compared to pure Holsteins.

2 Secondly, the crossbred animals had a three to four days longer gestation length compared to the pure Holsteins.

3 The third finding was the calving difficulty of Viking Red sired calves born to Montbeliarde cross Holstein cows was similar to pure Holsteins. However, Montbeliarde sired bull calves born to Viking cross Holsteins scored +0.5 points higher for calving difficulty than pure Holsteins.

4 The three-breed crossbred calves had a lower stillbirth rate of 4%-5% compared to 9% for pure Holsteins calves when born to first lactation animals.

5 All measures of fertility favoured the two crossbred groups during first lactation. The magnitude of difference was eight fewer days open of Viking cross Holsteins to 12 fewer days open for Montbeliarde cross Holsteins compared to pure Holsteins.

6 Significantly more Montbeliarde cross Holsteins survived to second calving (4%) compared to pure Holstein herdmates.

7 Both crossbred groups had greater udder depth than the pure Holsteins. The Montbeliardecross and Viking Red-cross had more rear teat placement, and the Montbeliarde- cross had longer teat length than pure Holsteins. No difference was observed between the groups for culling due to udder conformation.

8 Eighth was the fact no differences were detected between groups for SCC during first lactation. Udder health problems tend to surface more during second and later lactations.

9 Lastly, the Montbeliarde-cross and Vikingcross groups had greater body condition scores, +0.50% and +0.25% respectively, and shorter stature and less body depth during first early lactation compared to pure Holsteins.

The University of Minnesota enrolled 3550 virgin heifers and cows from eight participating dairy herds as foundation females during 2008. The participating farms had elite herds collectively averaging 13,794kg milk with 545kg fat and 428kg protein on three-times per day milking. The eight participating herds ranged from 275–1940 cows.

 

Only high genetic merit proven AI bulls were used in the study with Montbeliarde and Viking Red semen being imported into the US by Creative Genetics. These bulls ranked highly for the French ISU Index and Nordic Total Merit Index. Holstein AI proven bulls were supplied by Select Sires and ranked among the top 10% of available bulls on Net Merit Index including Million, Moscow, Plato and Colby.

Mating design

The mating design is the first of its kind for a genetic study by using co-operating herds. During the first eight years, more than 6000 heifer calves were born and each herd currently contains a cross-section of animals of first, second, third and fourth generation of threebreed rotational crossbred fem-ales alongside their pure Holstein herdmates.

 

For analysis purposes, 548 Montbeliarde cross Holstein, 583 Viking Red cross Holstein and 1134 pure Holstein animals calved down for the first time between December 2010 and April 2014. The complete cohort of two breed crossbred animals and their contemporary pure Holstein herdmates have now had the opportunity to complete the first 305 days of first lactation. (See Table 1).

 

As regards production, the breed groups were essentially identical for age at first calving, however the Montbeliarde-cross cows had significantly more protein.

 

On the combined F+P front, the Montbeliardecrosses reigned supreme at 760kg, with Viking-cross cows at 749kg and the pure Holsteins falling behind at 741kg.

Table 1:

First lactation (305 days) for Crossbreds v pure Holsteins

Trait

Holstein

(pure)

Montbeliarde

cross Holstein

Viking Red

cross Holstein

Number of cows 978 513 540
Age at first calving 23.9 23.8 23.7
Milk kg 10,970 10,954 10,537
Fat kg 408 417 413
Fat % 3.72 3.81 3.92
Protein kg 333 343 336
Protein % 3.03 3.13 3.19
Combined F+P kg 741 760 749
Somatic Cell 2.1 2.2 2.1

Adjustment

It is important to note production analysis did not adjust for differences in pregnancy status/fertility between the groups. On average the crossbred animals calved back sooner into second lactation than the pure Holsteins. Due to the fertility advantage, the crossbred cows returned to peak production more quickly than the pure Holsteins. (See Table 2).

 

On fertility, both crossbred groups were superior to the pure Holsteins for fertility during first lactation. Most cows were bred as a result of synchronised first service. Therefore, there was very little difference between breed groups for days to first breeding. However, Montbeliarde-cross cows were bred two days earlier during first lactation.

 

Viking Red-cross cows had significantly higher first service conception rates (9%) than pure Holsteins. For overall conception rates the Montbeliard-cross and the Viking Red-cross came in at 46% and 43% respectively, compared to Holsteins at 38% across the first five inseminations. The Montbeliarde-cross cows were inseminated fewer times (2.07) compared to pure Holsteins (2.30).

Table 2:

Fertility during first lactation for pure Holsteins, Montbeliarde-cross and Viking Red-cross cows

Trait

Holstein

(pure)

Montbeliarde

cross Holstein

Viking Red

cross Holstein

Days to first breeding 970 cows 71 507 cows 69 539 cows 70

First

conception %

948 38% 499 43% 528 47%

Overall

conception %

950 38% 499 46% 528 43%

Times bred

(up to five)

959 2.30 506 2.07 537 2.15
Days open 901 125 480 113 514 117

First lactation

Both crossbred groups had significantly fewer days open during first lactation compared to their pure Holstein herdmates, recording 12 fewer days open for the Montbeliarde-cross cows and eight fewer days open for the Viking Red-cross cows. However, it is important to note, days open were not allowed to surpass 250 days for individual cows. The above figures are likely to be conservative as a higher percentage of pure Holsteins had greater days open than 250 days.

 

The survival to 60 days in milk was similar being between 96%-97% for all breed groups. (See Table 3). A significant proportion of crossbreds calved again within 14 months after first calving, being +9% and +7% for Montbeliardecross and Viking Red-cross groups respectively, compared to pure Holsteins.

Montbeliarde cross Holstein – daughter of MicMac.

Significantly more (7%) Montbeliarde-cross and (5%) more Viking Red-cross animals initiated a second lactation within 17 months of first calving compared to the pure Holsteins.

 

The crossbred groups therefore returned to peak production sooner after first calving than their pure Holstein herdmates. Additional cows within each group calved after 17 months in first lactation resulting in a greater proportion of Montbeliarde- cross cows (84%) and Viking Red-cross cows (83%) surviving to second lactation compared to 80% for pure Holsteins.

Table 3:

Survival during first lactation for pure Holsteins, Montbeliarde-cross and Viking Red-cross cows

Trait

Holstein

(pure)

Montbeliarde

cross Holstein

Viking Red

cross Holstein

Survival to

60 days

1033 cows 96% 536 cows 96% 560 cows 97%

Second calving

14 months

1021 63% 530 72% 552 70%

Second calving

17 months

1021 76% 529 83% 551 81%

Survival to

2nd calving

1014 80% 529 84% 551 83%
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