Production and Calving Ease of Crossbred Dairy Cows Compared With Pure Holsteins

Dr. Allen Young
USU Extension Dairy Specialist

In the past year or two I have heard a great deal of talk among dairy farmers about the possibilities of crossbreeding cows and coming up with a superior animal compared to the sire and dam. Everyone seems to have an opinion, and when it comes to which crosses are the best the opinions really vary. There is some validity to the idea of crossbreeding, but not a lot of really good, third party information. In the July issue of the Journal of Dairy Science there are two companion papers that looked at the results of crossbreeding on 7 commercial dairies in California. The results should help you form an opinion on whether to consider this type of a program.

Pure Holsteins were compared with Normande-Holstein crossbreds, Montbeliarde-Holstein crossbreds and Scandinavian Red-Holstein crossbreds in terms of 305-day milk, fat and protein production for the 1st lactation. The results are shown in Table 1. The take-home message is that production was less in the first lactation, after accounting for age, milking frequency and season effects, for the crossbred cows than for pure Holstein cows. If you add the fat and protein pounds together and make the comparison, the Scandinavian Red/Holstein cross was no different than Holsteins in terms of component values, even though the milk production was less. Energy-corrected milk values for the differences between the pure Holsteins and Normande/Holsteins, Montbeliarde/Holsteins and Scandinavian Red/Holsteins were 2120, 971 and 647 pounds, respectively. Again, this was first lactation only.

Table 1. Production values for pure Holsteins compared with Crossbred Holsteins for pounds of milk, fat and protein. Same superscripts signify no difference between that crossbred and pure Holsteins. Different superscripts signify difference between the pure Holstein and the Crossbred cow.
Breed No. cows Milk, lb Fat, lb Protein, lb
Pure Holstein 380 21,465a 761a 671a
Normande/Holstein 245 18,986b 702b 609b
Montbeliarde/Holstein 494 20,154b 735b 645b
Scandinavian Red/Holstein 328 20,418b 748a 653b

Calving Difficulty and Stillbirths

In the companion paper, the authors looked at calving difficulty and stillbirths of the purebred Holstein cows bred to Holstein sires and three other sire breeds (Tables 2) and Holstein and crossbred cows compared to each other (Table 3).

Calving difficulty and stillbirths from Holstein dams mated with Scandinavian Red sires resulted in significantly lower difficulties and stillbirths in all ages of dams compared with animals sired by Holsteins (Table 2). The use of Brown Swiss sires also reduced the calving difficulties in first-calf Holstein dams, but the difference is only about 4%, as contrasted with Scandinavian Red sires that reduced difficulties by about 11%. Industry averages suggest that calving difficulties are in the 6 to 11% range. The most interesting aspect for me was that sires of all breeds were significantly lower in stillbirths compared to Holstein sires for second- to fifth-lactation Holstein dams by 5 to 8%. However, industry averages suggest 5 to 7% stillbirths are normal in purebred Holsteins, and the difference in stillbirths compared to crossbreds reported here may be exaggerated by the much higher (12.7%) Holstein stillbirth rate recorded in these 7 commercial herds.

The authors also reversed the question and looked at the effect of dam on calving difficulty and stillbirth percentage. In Table 3 we see that all other dam groups were significantly lower in calving difficulties than the pure Holstein dam group. Stillbirth percents were also lower in first calf animals for the Montbeliarde-Holstein and Scandinavian Red-Holstein dam groups. No differences between dam groups were found for second calf cows.

Table 2. The percentages of calving difficulty and stillbirths in Holstein dams by breed of sire. N = number of cows and * = significantly different values compared with the Holstein sires.
Breed of sire First-calf Holstein dams Second- to fifth-calf Holstein dams
N Calving difficulty (%) Stillbirths (%) N Calving difficulty (%) Stillbirths (%)
Holstein 371 16.4 15.1 303 8.4 12.7
Brown Swiss 209 12.5* 11.6 524 4.9 5.6*
Normande 0 - - 326 8.7 7.3*
Montbeliarde 158 11.6 12.7 2373 5.4 5.0*
Scandinavian Red 855 5.5* 7.7* 515 2.1* 4.7*

Table 3. The percentages of calving difficulty and stillbirths by breed group of dam. N = number of cows and * = significantly different values compared with the Holstein dams (** = highly significant).
Breed group of dam First calf Second calf
N Calving difficulty (%) Stillbirths (%) N Calving difficulty (%) Stillbirths (%)
Pure Holstein 676 17.7 14.0 307 3.1 3.7
Normande-Holstein 262 11.6* 9.9 190 3.3 4.7
Montbeliarde-Holstein 370 7.2** 6.2** 75 0.2 5.9
Scandinavian Red-Holstein 264 3.7** 5.1** 69 1.9 2.3

Personally, I don�t have a preference on the issue of crossbreeding. On one hand it could solve many problems we have, but the second or third generation cross may be a little different than wanted. However, I think the conclusions based on these two papers are that crossbreeding is an extremely viable option for reducing calving difficulties and stillbirths. That alone is not a trivial matter and deserves serious consideration. I also think the jury is still out on the production end, but in terms of energy-corrected milk, some of the crosses may not represent as large a sacrifice as would appear from just milk yield alone. Reduced calving difficulties and stillbirths would probably pay for the difference in milk. Like anything else, before you jump into the crossbreeding arena, do your homework to make sure you are getting what you want.

If you have any questions, you can contact me at (435) 797-3763 or ©