Farmers Guardian
By Chloe Palmer

Cross-breeding has become something of a trend in the dairy industry. But what does it involve and what is the best way to go about it? Chloe Palmer takes an in-depth look at the issue.

Those farmers who champion the merits of a grass-based seasonal calving system are increasingly taking advantage of cross-breeding.

And for those farmers who have adopted a more extensive system and have possibly seen a decline in reproductive performance traits, the option of changing the cow to suit the system may make good sense.

But what is cross-breeding? Andy Dodd, cross-breeding specialist with DairyCo, says cross-breeding delivers genetic improvement to a herd as a result of increased genetic resources, heterosis and complementarity.

Cross-breeding allows for parents to be selected from a gene pool as different breeds offer greater variety compared to a single breed. Furthermore, breeds such as the Swedish Red and Montbeliarde have placed more emphasis on certain reproductive and survivability traits.

Heterosis (also referred to as hybrid vigour) refers to the increased performance of cross-bred animals, compared with the average of their pure-bred parent populations. The effects of heterosis are not transferred to subsequent generations.

However, Mr Dodd points out the limitations of the effects of heterosis. “It is very important farmers don’t go down the cross-breeding route just because of hybrid vigour. It is very useful but should be looked upon as an added bonus and not the deciding factor.”

Complementarity refers to the additive genetic effect of selecting breeds which complement each other. It can contribute significantly to a cross-breeding programme because traits such as health, reproduction and production exhibit substantial additive genetic merit and can be selected in parent breeds.


It is vital to recognise all the research highlights that herd performance is only partly about genetics. For example, variation in milk production per lactation is 55 per cent influenced by gen-etics, with the other 45 per cent variation being accounted for by management and the cow’s environment.

There has been considerable research on cross-breeding and reproductive performance, with findings being unanimous in its conclusions.

Research carried out by VanRaden and Miller in 2006 concluded: ‘Almost without exception, cross-bred animals have exhibited greater reproductive fitness than the parent breeds’.

Similarly, longevity is also higher for all cross-bred combinations and research undertaken in Denmark, showed frequencies of enteritis and mortality in cross-breds were less than half of the pure breed populations. Increased resistance to disease is just one reason why cross-breeding is becoming increasingly popular with organic farmers.

The pure-bred Holstein remains unsurpassed in terms of its milk yield however, concerns about lower compensation rates payable for cross-bred animals taken out following positive TB tests are sometimes overplayed, according to Mr Dodd.

Compensation rates

“With heifers, there could be up to £1,000 difference but once a cow has calved, compensation rates are very similar between pure and cross-bred cows.”

Mr Dodd says making a success of cross-breeding is down to planning and looking to long-term goals.

“Those farmers which have gone in to it with a plan, knowing where they want to be in ten years time, these are the ones who are generally successful,” he says.

Mr Dodd says it is vital to choose the best cow for the individual’s farming system and the market they are supplying into and he also says choice of breed is important.

“You’ve always got to be prepared to milk the breed of your choice as a pure-bred, because you’re going to end up with half their traits,” he says. “If you’re not happy about that, disregard the breed.”

To get maximum value from hybrid vigour he advises including four breeds in the programme.

“This is quite a challenge as you will need to find four breeds which you are happy with and are genetically different, and each must have a good bull testing programme.”

Record keeping

Mr Dodd says this can become quite complicated to keep track of and highlights the importance of meticulous record keeping.

“Good records are crucial as you need to know what you have put each cow to so you know where to go next.”

He also says choice of bull is vital to the success of any cross-breeding programme and adds it is important to have a good understanding of the terminology associated with bull genetics so informed decisions can be made.

He cautions against simply taking information about a bull provided by semen salesman at face value, urging farmers to ask for the data which is not included in the sales brochure.

“You can go backwards very quickly if you pick the wrong bull – spend time looking at them and what they offer to make sure you get it right.”

Mr Dodd also warns of the dangers of viewing cross-breeding as the answer to inherent problems with herd performance. “Cross-breeding isn’t a magic pill.

Because of the influence of hybrid vigour, it can disguise poor management but it won’t cure it.

“For those herds where the management is right and then they introduce cross-breeding, they can end up with a fantastic system.”

Case study: Richard Park of Low Sizergh Barn, Kendal, Cumbria – adopts a rigorous approach to selection within the herd

Richard Park first considered cross-breeding when he was looking to convert to organic production in 2000.

He says when he started looking at organic herds he began to notice many of the cows were not black and whites.

As a result Mr Park carried out some further research on Swedish Reds and began crossing the Holstein to the Swedish Red and says he was pleased with the first crosses, but then had to review his programme.

“There was no uniformity with the second and third crosses using only two breeds,” he says. “So I looked at trials in California, where they were using a three-way cross.

“When I first looked at the Montbeliarde, I thought how is that going to milk because they looked more like a suckler cow, but then the trials were on a big enough scale to convince me that it would work.”


As well as using the Holstein again as the third-cross, Mr Park uses other breeds such as the Normandie and the Fleckvieh to fine-tune his breeding programme. His herd is now uniform in size, albeit a little smaller, and suits his system exactly.

In 2010, he chose to come out of organic production and now supplies Dale Farm Dairies in Kendal which makes yoghurts, desserts and also supplies liquid milk. As Richard is now on a constituent contract with them, the higher fat (4.2 per cent) and protein content (3.34 per cent) of the milk produced by his cross-breds is an important consideration.

The cross-bred cows also do well under his block autumn calving system.

“When I came out of organic, I wanted to continue to get milk from forage, particularly grass, so I moved away from all-year-round calving to an autumn block with paddock grazing in summer.

“I’m trying to develop a simple system so that although at certain times of the year – at calving – we’re working very hard, once the cows go out to grass in spring, they will all be back in-calf and we can park the feeder wagon up.”

Mr Park says milk yields have barely suffered from the move to cross-breeding and a forage based system.

“We average about 8,100 litres at the moment and I’m aiming for around 8,500 litres, of which I think it’s possible to get 4,500 to 5,000 litres from forage.”

In order to make his system work, Mr Park adopts a rigorous approach to selection within the herd.

Additional income

“Any cows which don’t fit into the system are sold out freshly calved at the end of the block. The excellent fertility means few cows are sold this way, but a surplus of youngstock enables additional income from cow and heifer sales.”

Mr Park is also enthusiastic about the value of the cross-bred cull cow, which can make a very useful contribution to the bottom line.

“The survivability of cross-breds means when they finally have to go, you can put some flesh on them and get a reasonable price. If cows have to go on the back of a wagon, you have to pay to get them taken away. We have very few cows going that way now.”

Farm facts

* 130 hectares (320 acres), mainly tenanted from the National Trust
* 160 milking cows plus followers and 120 lambing sheep
* Nearly all cows are now cross-bred, with the Holstein cross Scandinavian Red cross Montbeliarde or Fleckvieh as the predominant cross
* Average yield 8,100 litres, 4.2 per cent fat and 3.34 per cent protein content
* 67 per cent of cows holding first service
* Calving interval of 363 days
* The shop, tearoom and craft gallery on the farm employs 60 people and visitors can also walk the two-mile long farm trail

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