"Hybrid-Vigor" Advantage

You have heard the expression "there is no such thing as a free lunch". In the beef business, the closest thing to a free lunch is taking advantage of an organized composite breeding system.

Hybrid vigor is a more descriptive term for heterosis. Heterosis is a bonus beef producers will get in addition to the positive effects of using top AI bulls within a breed. The effects of heterosis are the opposite effects of inbreeding and are especially valuable for traits like fertility, vitality and health.

Advantage of Crossbred vs Staightbred Animals
Trait Percentage
Cow Efficiency 8%
Cow Longevity 38%
Cow Lifetime Production 25%

Composites are a "simplified" system of crossbreeding.

With the leading cause for beef cows leaving herds being low production, infertility, and health, by utilizing complementary breeds that have strong traits for these characteristics these problems can be diminished in resulting offspring.

Composite beef cattle can be bred to fit many different environments and requirements.

Composites have several advantages over straight-bred animals. It is a simple system and can produce cattle that have improved or increased:

  • Fertility
  • Healthier
  • Stronger
  • Longer-Lived
  • Adaption
  • Conformation
  • Color
  • More trouble-free (calving performance)
  • Higher components (not just milk)

With hybrid vigor expected in the offspring, these first generation composites may be better than the average of the parents.

Crossbreeding programs need to use breeds that possess complimentary characteristics to produce desirable offspring. This is why using Composites can simplify a crossbreeding program yet retain and increase not only hybrid-vigor but fertility, health and other important factors.


The advantages to using Composites is that,
Composites can simplify a crossbreeding program and add hybrid-vigor.

More than eighty recognized breeds of beef cattle are available to producers in the United States. However, an exact count is difficult to obtain because other breeds continue to be imported and crossing existing breeds continuously creates new breeds.

Hybrid-vigor and complementarity are powerful forces that combine to produce the total crossbred advantage of beef cattle crossbreeding. The crossbred advantage can amount to as much as 25% greater lifetime productivity (pounds of calf weaned per cow exposed) for crossbred cows as compared to straight-bred cows. In recent years many commercial herds have drifted towards straight-bred Angus herds in an attempt to achieve management simplicity, greater uniformity in their cattle, and to pursue a premium (non-commodity) product.  The result of this is the loss of most of the heterosis that once existed in many of our commercial cowherds.  Loss of hybrid-vigor shows up in the same lowly heritable traits that would be associated with inbreeding depression, namely reproductive, fitness and longevity traits. Thus, the price paid for loss of hybrid-vigor occurs as a number of very small losses that when added up can amount to a substantial sacrifice in lifetime productivity (25%).

Producers would be wise to crossbreed even if hybrid-vigor was zero, because of the complementary effects of matching strengths of one breed to the weaknesses of another breed. The opportunity to breed bulls and cows of different breeds taking advantage of complementarity is an important part of the crossbred advantage.  Without a doubt one of the most successful crossbreed cows is the Angus x Hereford created by matching up the strengths of those two breeds and mask some of the weaknesses of each; that was complementarity!

The formation of composite breed, based on a multi-breed foundation, is becoming more attractive and offers an alternative to traditional crossbreeding.  Composite breeds are created by crossing of two or more breeds in certain percentages of each breed, and once a breed composition is formed, can be managed as a straight-bred, in a one-pasture system with none of the problems associated with small herd size or fluctuation in breed composition.

Composite breeding strategies have been researched and developed at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Meat Animal Research Centre (MARC) in Nebraska.  MARC research has shown that populations of composite cows provide an efficient alternative to more complex systems of cross breeding while retaining high levels of hybrid-vigor.  Their results have shown that composite breeding offers a solution that is more effective than the traditional rotational cross-breeding systems for utilizing genetic differences between breeds to achieve and maintain optimum performance levels for economic traits on a continuing basis.

Research done a couple decades ago by the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) on composites clarified that they do have a role in the beef industry, and that they breed true. Phenotypic variation within composite populations was no different than phenotypic variation in the parent breeds. Three or four decades ago, there was a stigma among cattle producers that composites would have greater variation (less uniformity), but the MARC research did not bear this out.

People were concerned about using composite bulls because they wanted all their calves black-hided, but we can get homozygous black, homozygous polled composite bulls, and things like color and horns are no longer a concern.

Utilizing Composite or crossbred bulls is often more beneficial to the cow-calf producer than a terminal cross (breeding crossbred cows to a bull of a third breed that produces heavily muscled beef calves for market). The latter program creates super beef calves for market, but no replacement heifers. You have to buy your heifers; thus the genetic fate of your whole operation is in someone else's hands. Many producers prefer to retain some of their best heifers as cows, and by utilizing Composite blends enable them to do this.

Composites also allow a producer to reach a desired breed composition in his herd much more quickly than with traditional crossbreeding, in fewer generations. For example, if the producers goal is to have a herd that the breed composition is 75 percent British and 25 percent Continental genetics (and starting with a British breed cow herd), this would be accomplished in two generations when using purebred bulls, and only one generation with a Composite bull of the two desired breeds to complement the cow herd and produce those percentages.

Composites offer an opportunity to counter the antagonism between USDA Quality Grade and Yield Grade.  The often stated goal of the beef industry is to produce finished cattle that are at least 70% USDA Choice or better, 70% Yield Grade 1 & 2 and have zero defects or zero “out” cattle. This 70-70-0 target is difficult to achieve with either British or Continental breeds alone, however a blend of these two types as found in the MARC II (1/2 Continental:1/2 British) does a much more acceptable job of meeting the 70-70-0 target. Thus a composite can actually lower the risk of non-compliance to a market target.


Popularity of Composites

Composites are gaining in popularity today because they simplify the breeding program for a producer who wants the advantages of several breed traits. Instead of having to work at an elaborate crossbreeding program he/she can simply select the composite that most closely provides those traits; the animals are already mixed in a desired combination.