Crossbreeding for the Future of Profitability of Dairying

By Brad Heins, Associate Professor, and Glenda Pereira, PhD Student

May 2018

Introduction to Crossbreeding

The ideal milking cow should have a calf without any trouble, produce high fat and protein, have superior fertility, a functional udder, and good feet and legs while being resistant to health problems. If a cow has these traits, she should have a long productive life. Trouble free cows do exist and they are often unrecognized by producers because they are never in the sick pen. Currently, around 9.2 million dairy cattle are in the United States and 82% of that total is predominantly purebred Holsteins. In recent years inbreeding has been rapidly rising in the purebred Holstein population. The average inbreeding of U.S. Holstein females is increasing at 0.25% per year since 2013, and the current 2018 estimate within the Holstein breed is 7.5% (Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding, USA). Inbreeding depression has resulted in decreased survival and higher death loss of Holstein cows. 

Crossbreeding has been applied in other species such as swine and poultry to introduce hybrid vigor. In these species, improvements have been made to decrease mortality, increase gain to feed efficiency and meat and carcass quality traits, improving overall profitability. To benefit from crossbreeding, sires of higher genetic merit must be utilized to retain the best traits of the parent breeds. In dairy cattle, crossbreeding Holstein cattle to Jersey sires has been a popular method in the U.S. as this makes up a high percentage of the current population of crossbreds. However, it wasn’t until the early 2000’s that crossbreeding with Montbéliarde, Normande, and Viking Red sires became a trend.

Research with Cooperating Farmers

The University of Minnesota worked with seven California dairies and compared purebred Holstein cows to Normande x Holstein, Montbéliarde x Holstein and Scandinavian Red x Holstein crossbred cows. All three groups of crossbred cows had lower 305-day fat plus protein production compared to purebred Holsteins across lactations, but this difference was small between purebred Holsteins and the Montbéliarde x Holstein cows (-53 lbs) and Scandinavian Red x Holstein cows (-64 lbs). The crossbred groups were all consistently superior to the purebred Holsteins for fertility across the first five lactations, potentially due to the reduced calving difficulty and stillbirths observed for the crossbreds. Twenty-five percent of Holsteins did not calve a second time, whereas only 11% to 15% of crossbreds did not calve a second time. Montbéliarde x Holstein and Scandinavian Red x Holstein crossbred cows had 50% to 44%, respectively, more lifetime profit per cow and more profit per day than purebred Holsteins, Table 1. Because Normande x Holstein cows had 26% greater lifetime profit per cow, but had 6.7% less profit per day than purebred Holsteins, this crossbreeding rotation is not as recommended for high producing dairy herds like the ones utilized in this research study.

Table 1: Profit per day

Starting in 2008, 8 dairy herds in Minnesota started crossbreeding with Montbéliarde and Viking Red sires. Purebred Holstein cows and heifers were bred to Montbéliarde (Montbéliarde x Holstein) and to Viking Red (Viking Red x Holstein), and calved for the first time from December 2010 to April 2014. In this study, purebred Holstein and crossbred cows were managed the same to properly be evaluated side by side on a herd management level. Unlike the results in the California study, 305-day fat plus protein production was 31 kg greater for the crossbreds (both groups combined) compared to the purebred Holsteins during first lactation. Fertility was superior for the crossbred groups compared to purebred Holsteins during first lactation. Crossbred cows were bred 2 days earlier on average than purebred Holsteins, and first service conception rate in addition to the conception rate across the first 5 inseminations increased 7%, during first lactation. Furthermore, the combined crossbred cows had 10 fewer days open compared with purebred Holsteins. Across the 8 herds, breed groups did not differ for survival to 60 days in milk; however, the superior fertility of the crossbred cows increased the number of crossbreds (71%) that calved a second time within 14 months compared with the Holstein cows (63%). For survival to second calving, the combined crossbred cows had 4% greater survival compared with the Holstein cows.

Research Conducted with the University of Minnesota Dairy Herds

Figure 1: Map
Figure 1

Geneticists at the University of Minnesota have been crossbreeding with the Holstein, Montbéliarde and Viking Red sires at the University of Minnesota’s two dairy research herds in the early 2000’s. The first dairy herd is located in the middle of the city of St. Paul on the Agricultural campus (figure 1; star to the right) has 100 milking cows, consisting of purebred Holsteins and ProCROSS crossbreds. Cows at this dairy are maintained in a tie-stall barn year round and have access to a compost bedded pack barn. The second dairy is located at the West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris, Minnesota (figure 1; star to the left). There are 150 organic cows and 150 low-input conventional cows, and both herds include purebred Holsteins, ProCROSS crossbreds (MVH) and a three-breed cross of Normande x Jersey x Viking Red (NJV). During the summer grazing season (May to October) organic cows are on pasture and supplemented daily with 2.72 kg of corn per cow, and low-input cows are fed a total mixed ration in an outdoor confinement dry-lot. During the winter season (November to April) all cows were fed a total mixed ration consisting of corn silage, alfalfa haylage, corn, soybean meal, and minerals in an outwintering lot and a compost barn. Because cattle in this herd consume pasture, Normande and Jersey breeds are utilized in this herd, but not in the St. Paul herd. Normande and Jersey cattle can consume forages and still produce adequate amounts of milk with high fat and protein.

St. Paul Dairy Research

Feed Intake

At the St. Paul dairy herd, a tie-stall barn allows cows to be fed individually. Measuring the feed efficiency of dairy cattle is crucial but costly. Feed intake trials have been conducted consequently in the St. Paul dairy. An early study with crossbreds measured the daily dry matter intake during the first 150 days of 1st lactation for 40 purebred Holstein cows, 33 Montbéliarde x Holstein and 24 Montbéliarde × (Jersey × Holstein) crossbreds. Dry matter intake was not significantly different for all breed groups; however, purebred Holstein cattle consumed 20.4 kg per day, Montbéliarde x Holstein crossbreds consumed 19.8 kg per day and Montbéliarde × (Jersey × Holstein) crossbreds consumed 19.7 kg per day. Both groups of Montbéliarde crossbreds had greater BCS (3.30 vs. 2.74) and BW (551 vs. 528 kg) than the purebred Holstein cows. Both groups of Montbéliarde crossbreds had 18 fewer days open than the purebred Holsteins, and this is presumed by the relationship between fertility and BCS especially during early lactation. 

In a recent study, daily feed intake and refusals of purebred Holstein and ProCROSS cattle were recorded for the first 150 days of lactation. Production, BCS and body weights were also recorded. This study included 60 purebred Holsteins and 63 ProCROSS in 1st lactation, and 37 purebred Holsteins and 43 ProCROSS in 2nd and 3rd lactations. ProCROSS cattle had greater body weight and more body condition than purebred Holsteins in 1st lactation, but consumed on average 141 kg less feed in the first 150 days, while producing similar amounts of fat and protein. In 2nd lactation, ProCROSS cows consumed on average 232 kg less feed than purebred Holsteins while and had similar production in the 150 days of lactation. The income over feed cost for farmers would be 34 cents/cow/day for first lactation and 60 cents/cow/day for second plus lactations for ProCROSS compared to Holsteins. The ProCROSS cows consumed less feed but still maintained more body weight and body condition than purebred Holsteins.

Morris Dairy Research

Figure 2: Crossbreeding

At the dairy in Morris, we have developed two crossbreeding designs and are comparing them to Holstein herd mates. In one 3-breed rotation, we are using the Holstein, Montbéliarde, and Viking Red breeds (ProCROSS, MVH). The other 3-breed rotation uses the Normande, Viking Red, and Jersey breeds (no Holstein in the rotation, NJV). The number of cows will only continue to grow as we continue these crossbreeding systems into the future. Therefore, some results are preliminary from the Morris herd.

The Jersey-sired and Viking Red-sired crossbred cows had lower 305-day fat plus protein production compared to their Holstein herd mates during first lactation. The Viking Red crossbreds were lower for fat plus protein than other crossbred sired cows because the Viking Red cows were from dams that were 50% Jersey, and therefore, the Jersey influence may have caused the lower production, which was observed in the Jersey-sired crossbreds. The Montbéliarde and Normande-sired crossbred cows were similar to their Holstein herd mates for fat plus protein production during first lactation. The Viking Red, Montbéliarde, and Normande-sired crossbred cows showed numerical advantage for fertility.

Meat Quality

Less research has been performed on the meat quality, amino acid profile and consumer preference of crossbred dairy steers especially on a grass based diet. Beef consumers are becoming more curious about how and where their food comes from, in addition to the fatty acid profile of the meat they consume. Therefore, in 2016 at the Morris dairy, purebred Holsteins, MVH crossbreds, and NJV crossbred dairy steers were finished on winter rye and winter wheat pastures. Following slaughter, the meat was evaluated for amino acid profiles and a consumer taste study was conducted to determine consumer acceptability. Fat from crossbred steers had 13% greater omega-3 fatty acids and an omega-6/3 ratio that was 14% lower in fat, when compared to purebred Holstein steers. In addition, steak from crossbreeds had greater overall liking than purebred Holstein steers as determined by consumers.

Precision Technology

Rumination and activity monitors have gained interest of use by producers, however most research has been done with purebred Holstein cattle in confined systems. As mentioned, the number of crossbred dairy cows is increasing in the U.S. and a baseline of rumination time for crossbreds could be beneficial to producers. For this study, 114 purebred Holstein cows, 248 MVH crossbreds, and 167 NVJ crossbreds from the Morris herd were evaluated for total average rumination time. HR-LD Tags (SCR Engineers Ltd., Netanya, Israel) were used to record rumination time in total minutes per day. Similar rumination time was reported for all breed groups evaluated: purebred Holsteins: 521 min/d, MVH: 513 min/d, NJV: 513 min/d.

Future Projects

The University of Minnesota will continue to pursue studies with crossbred cattle of the breed rotations mentioned throughout the article. Future projects to keep an eye out for include creating genomic predictions for crossbreds, determining the most profitable crossbred for grazing in the Midwest, and lactation curves of purebred Holsteins compared to crossbreds.   


The University of Minnesota has been heavily involved with the research pertaining to crossbreeding in dairy cattle. Much of the research has explored alternative ways for producers to improve calving ease, fertility, health, and survival of cows. When compared to purebred Holsteins, crossbreds are superior for the traits described previously, but we must not forget that we need high quality purebreds to be able to crossbreed. Whatever breeds are used in dairy herds, the ideal dairy cow must have: 1) high fat and protein, 2) excellent fertility and the ability to produce a calf regularly, 3) longevity (~5 to 7 years), 4) low somatic cell count, 5) smaller body size, and 6) efficient conversion of feed to milk. Of course, the use of a breed depends on each producer's management system.