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Survival and Profitability from the California Crossbreeding Trials

Brad Heins

Decreased survival and increased death loss of Holstein cows has resulted in a renewed interest in crossbreeding of dairy cattle. The final results from California crossbreeding trials are showing promise that crossbred dairy cows have a higher rate of survival and higher profit compared to Holstein cows during their lifetimes. Previous published reports from the California crossbreeding study focused on the first few lactations of cows; however, the final analysis compared cows for fertility, SCC, production, survival, and profitability throughout their lifetimes.

In a research study in six California dairies, cows calved for the first time from June 2002 to January 2005, and were followed throughout their lifetimes. However, for the analysis of survival to subsequent calving, lifetime production and profitability, the data were restricted to three of the six herds because they had at least 20 cows in each of the breed groups to provide a meaningful comparison of cows for lifetime performance within herds. Profit was defined to include revenues and expenses for milk, fat, protein and other solids production, somatic cell count, reproduction, feed intake, calf value, salvage value, dead cow disposal, fixed cost and interest cost.

The three crossbred groups were all consistently superior to the Holsteins for fertility across the first five lactations (see accompanying table). Advantages for fertility of the crossbreds compared to Holsteins may have been partially due to the reduced calving difficulty and stillbirths observed for the crossbreds. Although SCC across the five lactations was similar for Normande x Holstein crossbreds and Holsteins, the Montbeliarde x Holstein and Scandinavian Red x Holstein crossbreds were lower for SCC than the Holsteins. All three types of crossbred cows had reduced 305-day fat plus protein production compared to their Holstein herdmates across lactations, but the magnitude of the difference from Holstein cows was small for the Montbeliarde x Holstein and Scandinavian Red x Holstein cows. Notably, the results for production are reported on a 305-day projected basis, which does not necessarily reflect milk produced within a fixed interval of time, because cows that died or left the herd are projected to 305 days.

The table also has survival rates for crossbred cows versus Holsteins, and all crossbred groups had higher percentages of cows that calved a second, third and fourth time than Holsteins. The main difference in survival of crossbreds compared to Holsteins was prior to second calving. Twenty-five percent of Holsteins did not calve a second time, whereas only 11% to 15% of crossbreds did not calve a second time. The difference of crossbreds and Holsteins was statistically significant in all cases.

Results for Normande x Holstein, Montbeliarde x Holstein, Scandinavian Red x Holstein crossbred cows and Holstein cows.
Normande x Holstein
Montbeliarde x Holstein
Scandinavian Red x Holstein
  (n = 380) (n = 242) (n = 491) (n = 314)
Days to first breeding (d) 70 -4** -7** -4**
Days open (d) 148 -20** -26** -12*
SCC 121,000 119,000 98,000** 108,000**
Fat + protein (lb) 1,679 -164** -52** -63**
  (n = 165) (n = 168) (n = 369) (n = 218)
Survival to 2nd calving (%) 75 +13** +14** +10**
Survival to 3rd calving (%) 51 +22** +24** +20**
Survival to 4th calving (%) 29 +24** +26** +21**
Days of herd life (d) 946 +317** +412** +360**
Lifetime profit ($) 4,347 +1,120** +2,156** +1,925**
Profit per day ($) 4.17 -0.28** +0.22** +0.15**
**P < 0.01 for contrast of difference from Holstein.
*P < 0.05 for contrast of difference from Holstein.
n = number of cows.
Results will be published in a future issue of the Journal of Dairy Science.


For profitability, Normande x Holstein cows had 26% greater lifetime profit per cow, but 6.7% less profit per day, than Holstein cows. On the other hand, Montbeliarde x Holstein and Scandinavian Red x Holstein cows had 50% to 44%, respectively, more lifetime profit per cow and 5.3% to 3.6%, respectively, more profit per day than Holstein cows.

The advantages for profit per day of the Montbeliarde x Holstein and Scandinavian Red x Holstein crossbreds over Holsteins may seem modest. However, the daily profit margin must be multiplied by 365 days to estimate annual difference in profit, and the estimates of profit per day ignore potential differences in breed groups for health costs. The additional profit per day on an annual basis was $80 for Montbeliarde x Holstein and $55 for Scandinavian Red x Holstein cows compared to Holstein cows, which, for a 250-cow herd, would result in an additional annual profit of $20,000 for Montbeliarde x Holstein cows and $13,750 for Scandinavian Red x Holstein cows compared to Holstein cows.

Crossbreeding of dairy cattle is being explored mostly for its potential to improve the calving ease, fertility, health, and survival of cows. Advantages for these functional traits will compensate substantially for any potential loss of production of crossbreds compared to Holsteins. Increasingly, dairy producers, consultants, extension educators, and industry leaders should measure dairy cow performance in a more comprehensive way instead of by milk production alone. Unfortunately, health costs are often overlooked by dairy producers when assessing the profitability of alternative breeds of dairy cattle. Data on health costs will be important for dairy producers to compare crossbred and pure Holstein cows.

November 2011

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