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Crossbreeding dairy cows to improve sustainability

Quick facts

The ideal dairy cow should:

  • Produce high fat and protein.
  • Produce a calf regularly without any trouble.
  • Maintain superior fertility.
  • Have functional udder, feet and legs.
  • Be resistant to health problems and mastitis.

If a cow has these traits, she should have a long productive life. Trouble-free cows are often unrecognized by producers because they are never in the sick pen.

The University of Minnesota researches crossbreeding in dairy cattle and explores alternative ways for producers to improve calving ease, fertility, health and survival of cows. 

When compared to purebred Holsteins, studies have found that crossbreds are superior for fertility, survival and productive life. However, we need high quality purebreds to have high quality crossbreds. 

The use of a specific breed depends on each producer's management system, but regardless of breeds, the ideal dairy cow should have a good productive life if she has high fat and protein, excellent fertility and the ability to produce a calf regularly, functional udder, feet and legs, and low prevalence of health problems.

Sustainability and profitability need to be highly considered. To achieve this, the future ideal dairy cow will also need to have a smaller body size and more efficient conversion of feed to milk.

Crossbreeding

Crossbreeding has been applied in other species such as swine and poultry to increase vigor. In these species, improvements have been made to decrease mortality and increase feed efficiency and meat and carcass quality traits to improve overall profitability.

Sires of higher genetic merit retain the best traits of the parent breeds. In dairy cattle, breeding Holstein heifers and cows to Jersey bulls has been a popular method of crossbreeding in the U.S. and makes up a high percentage of the current population of lactating crossbreds.

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Brad Heins, Extension educator; Glenda Pereira, West Central Research and Outreach Center; Les Hansen, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences

Reviewed in 2019

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