ProCROSS Dairy Genetics Experiences Rapid Growth

Published on Thu, 10/15/2020 - 11:12am

 ProCROSS Dairy Genetics Experiences Rapid Growth.

 By Heather Smith Thomas.

 ProCROSS is a crossbreeding concept that rotates Holstein, VikingRed and Montbeliarde.  The combination of these breeds has proven to be the most profitable because they are a good fit for many types of U.S. management systems and are complementary—combining strengths of the 3 breeds and compensating for weak points among each breed.  They provide a high level of heterosis--hybrid vigor--when combined because they are unrelated pure breeds. The VikingRed, a Scandinavian breed, combines the Finnish, Swedish and Danish Red breeds, and Montbeliarde is a dairy breed from the Alpine mountain region in France.

Most dairy breeds today are highly inbred, due to diligent and long-term selection for milk production traits. This has led to loss of hardiness and lack of disease resistance. Much can be gained by crossbreeding unrelated breeds. Capturing and sustaining heterosis is key to an efficient crossbreeding program.  

High levels of heterosis are achieved when three pure breeds are rotated. A first cross between two unrelated parent breeds yields 100% heterosis.  By backcrossing only two breeds, the heterosis drops to 50% in the second generation and maintains at 67% of maximum heterosis for future generations. A system of four breeds results in much higher heterosis, averaging 93% over time, but four unrelated dairy breeds with sufficient milk production and high genetic merit for other important traits are difficult to find.  ProCROSS is a three-breed rotational crossbreeding system that generates profitable health and production results and maintains average heterosis of 86% long-term. ProCROSS is a planned and well-tested system developed by Creative Genetics and marketed internationally.  ProCROSS International is owned by parent companies, VikingGenetics and Coopex Montbeliarde.

Michael Osmundson, General Manager of Creative Genetics of California, says his company started in 1983.  “In 1997, nine of the dairies we worked closely with were trying to find a better way to address problems of declining health and reproductive ability of the Holstein cows they were milking,” he says.

“We met with those dairymen (and they became our ProCROSS pioneers) to talk about their challenges and come up with a genetic approach to resolve the problems.  We tried 25 different breeds and agreed to meet periodically and compare results.”

As the crossbred cows freshened, if the dairy producers saw anything they didn’t like, they would discuss it and vote to discontinue that breed if they didn’t want to keep using it.  This evaluation took place for several years from the time the first calves were born until each breed was at least in the middle of their first lactations.

The producers kept eliminating various breeds until they got down to the final four: Holstein, Montbeliarde, VikingRed, and Jersey.  The Jersey crosses were the first ones that freshened, and the producers felt those cows were pretty good.  Then the Montbeliarde-cross heifers freshened.  

“These were a thicker, heavier cow and some were slow to start.  Some of the dairymen were unsure about them.  But after 60 days, every producer decided Montbeliarde was the best breed,” says Osmundson.

The Montbeliarde-sired cows become pregnant quickly, stayed healthy, and produced as much as the Holsteins.  “So we put the Montbeliarde into our program, and then started freshening the VikingRed-sired cross heifers.  Within 3 weeks, all 9 dairy producers were excited about them, too.  They said we should forget the Jersey and just use Holstein, VikingRed, and Montbeliarde. 

That was the birth of the ProCROSS.  In 2001 we officially moved forward with this 3-breed rotation,” he says.

“We continued with that rotation and then these dairy producers wanted to know if it really was the most profitable on a lifetime basis.  They wanted a university to do a scientific study, and summarize all the data in an unbiased way.”

The group contacted several universities but were declined; crossbreeding went against the traditional idea that dairy cattle should be pure.  “We finally talked to Les Hansen at the University of Minnesota, and he and his team did the first trial, which lasted 7 years in the California herds.  Each cow had at least 4 years of opportunity for lifetime performance.  It became evident that the Montbeliarde-sired and VikingRed-sired cows outlasted the Holsteins, had better reproduction, lower somatic cell counts, and higher lifetime milk, protein and fat,” says Osmundson.

“The crossbreds were 12 to 26 days quicker to deliver their next calf.  The study ended after comparing only the first generation of 2-breed crossbreds to their Holstein herdmates because not enough Holsteins were left in the herds to evaluate subsequent generations of crossbreds.  More than twice as many Montbeliarde-sired and VikingRed-sired cows survived to a fourth lactation as their Holstein herdmates,” he explains.

The researchers tallied how much milk each cow produced during their first 4 years.  “What surprised everyone was that the crossbred cows had up to +21% more fat and protein production during that period because some of the Holsteins didn’t breed back right away and had long lactations with less days at peak production.  Also, the crossbreds stayed 12 to 14 months longer than the Holsteins.”

The Montbeliarde-sired crossbreds had +$.22 and VikingRed-sired crossbreds had +$.15 more profit per day than the Holsteins when all income and expenses were considered. Currently ProCROSS is the fastest-growing crossbreeding program in the world.  “We are now in 22 countries and growing fast in the U.S. as well,” Osmundson says. When the University of Minnesota trial was finished, more dairies around the country started this program.  

“Les Hansen suggested a study with high-producing herds in Minnesota to see if the crossbreds had the same advantage in profitability compared with Holstein herdmates as they did in the California study.  The Minnesota study was also designed to evaluate health treatment costs. It was a 10-year trial, involving more cows, and compared the first three generations of ProCROSS with Holstein herdmates,” Osmunson says.

The difference between breeds for health treatment expenses became substantial for cows transitioning into second and third lactations—the 3-breed ProCROSS cows had 26% less health treatment cost than their Holstein herdmates.  “Those are costs spent on mastitis, metabolic disease, reproductive treatments, etc.  If you can save $21 to $28 per cow per year, that’s a significant amount.”

In total, the 3-breed ProCROSS had reduced daily costs of $.44 per day, or $161 per year, which includes all costs for replacement, hoof trimming, insemination cost, and health.  Reduction in costs more than outweighed any reduced income from the small difference in production.  “Plus, the Minnesota study did not account for the advantage in feed efficiency of the ProCROSS cows.  You could feed 1080 ProCROSS cows for the same cost as 1000 Holstein cows,” Osmundson says.

In the Minnesota herds, the 3-breed ProCROSS cows had +$.34 more profit per day than the Holsteins, which equated to an advantage of +$125 more annual profit per cow.  The major advantages of the ProCROSS cows were: 1) substantially lower replacement cost (ProCROSS cows stayed in the herd longer), 2) lower health treatment cost, and 3) more income from calves.  The ProCROSS cows also bred back quicker, to calve again quicker.

“Our feed efficiency trial showed that first-calf ProCROSS heifers had about 6% higher feed efficiency than Holstein heifers.  By their second and third lactations, it was closer to 8% higher feed efficiency—while at the same time the ProCROSS had no loss of fat and protein production compared with Holsteins for any lactation,” he says.

ProCROSS is easy to implement.  Most herds begin with a herd of Holstein cows bred to Montbeliarde bulls.  Then, that first-cross animal is bred to a VikingRed bull.  That resulting 3-breed ProCROSS is bred to a Holstein to complete the rotation.  A few herds start with VikingRed if they wish to greatly reduce body size in the first generation, but most dairy producers experience a larger boost in profit and more satisfaction when starting with the Montbeliarde.  

“When you go back to Holstein for the third generation of the rotation, you’ll only loose a small amount of hybrid vigor compared with the 100% of the first 2 generations, because of the outcross breeds used in between.  After many generations, you end up with about 86% of your hybrid vigor.  Another plus to this rotation is that you can use related individual bulls (within each breed) when it is time use their breed again.”  This means dairy producers do not need to be concerned about high levels of inbreeding if they follow the 3-breed rotation.

“The reason such high hybrid vigor is maintained with ProCROSS is that the Montbeliarde is totally unrelated to both the VikingRed and the Holstein breeds.  The VikingRed is probably 85% different than all other breeds.”  A higher level of hybrid vigor is expressed in the offspring when the parents are more distantly related.

The three breeds complement each other well.  “The Holstein is too tall and frail, but has a tremendous udder (especially rear udder).  The Montbeliarde is a shorter but stouter cow, with a lot more body condition and tremendous feet and legs, and a beautiful fore udder—but not as much rear udder.  The Holstein gives the offspring more rear udder and together makes a stronger cow.  Once you have that stronger cow you breed her to the VikingRed, which is the size of a U.S. Ayrshire.  Thus, the 3-breed ProCROSS has reduced the body size compared to the Montbeliarde × Holstein cow,” he explains.

Recent research by USDA shows that the U.S. dairy herd is rapidly increasing in crossbreds.  Genetics is the name of the game in producing the best cows for your own dairy operation.  In terms of a dairy being able to stay in business, the ProCROSS cows provide many advantages.