The case for cross bred dual purpose cows

Many modern families are moving toward a more connected and simple lifestyle on the small farm and homestead. They desire to raise their own fresh foods and have a hands on approach to what they put on their table. Be it beef or dairy the goal from their future family cow, both can be accomplished with the addition of a well bred dual-purpose bovine.

There is a common misconception that a beef / dairy cross is undesirable for milk and lends itself less to quality in beef. This is far from true. A well selected and bred cross of beef and dairy breeds gives the best of both worlds without the usual lacks and frailties.

There are recognized breeds of dual-purpose cattle available: Dexter, Highland, Shorthorns and Simmental Cattle are all examples of easily procured breeds of this type.

While I admire the features of these breeds, as they are breed trait specific, one only gets the benefits of what is in the animal’s direct bloodline, whereas with the intentionally crossbred bovine, one develops the best of the best traits of both breeds.

Of late, there have been numerous studies on the benefits of intentionally cross breeding strong breeds of both dairy and beef. The findings tout the monetary, time, vigor and production gains of such pairings.

Penn State University did a study on cross bred cattle titled “ Crossbreeding is a good idea ; because heterosis is free money’. Heterosis is the emphasis of a value or trait as compared to the parent animal’s value of the same trait. They found that a pairing of breeds that are more genetically different pass more of the heterosis benefit to their offspring than those genetically similar. In example, a Jersey X Hereford would produce a calf of stronger positive characteristics of the sire and dam than a Hereford X Angus would, meaning that the beef x dairy cross would have the best of the parents traits at a higher percentage than the beef x beef breed cross.

According to the FAO ( Food and Agriculture organization) , small countries such as those in Latin America are turning to the dual purpose, cross bred cow not only for family use, but in large operations as well. Their hardiness, disease and defect resistance and ability to maintain and gain being key factors in that movement. The study that the FAO did regarding cross bred , dual purpose cattle was based on the success of these struggling farmers after switching to the cross bred type of cattle. The FAO’s primary mission statement is to end world hunger. They look for the most efficient plan and the least expensive to maintain for developing countries struggling to maintain livestock and feed the hungry. The FAO likes the dual purpose , cross bred cow for this goal.

How do we decide what cross breeds will work for both quality meat and rich milk? We choose two breeds that already provide those things separately and put them together, taking advantage of the aforementioned heterosis.

The American Hereford association actually recommends breeding Jerseys and Hereford for a strong, dual purpose cow. They cite the benefits of the superior beef traits of the Hereford and the superior dairy traits of the Jersey being the perfect combination, or in their own words ‘ the perfect cross’. The Hereford’s feed conversion efficiency, which translates into live weight gain in steers and exceptional weight maintenance on pasture in the heifer and cow make for not only better beef and dairy gains in the Jersey X Hereford offspring, but at a lower cost to the keeper. A quote from the article:

We did some research into Herefords and thought that using the Hereford on our Hereford X Jersey cows could work well. We felt that both breeds had good fertility, easy calving, the Jersey had plenty of high quality milk ideal for rearing beef calves while the Hereford offered high quality, marbled beef. In addition both the Jersey and Hereford were calm breeds and easy to handle,”

In a study by The Hereford Cattle association comparing beef breed traits and characteristics such as feed efficiency and general health and function, the Hereford was number one in all categories , across the board , for a 7 year controlled study of various highly recognized beef breeds. It is suggested that combining that upper tier beef influence with the globally recognized production capability and milk quality of the Jersey cow can result in the finest cross bred , dual purpose offspring.

A separate article by Hereford Cattle Association spotlights a rancher who has made the Hereford X Jersey his standard to much success and global benefit.

In an article on Lifestyle Block, Dr. Clive Dalton also recommends creating your own dual-purpose cow by crossing the Hereford and Jersey:

Michigan State University did a study of long term crossbreeding and the results. Some of these intentional pairings have so consistently produced offspring with similar, hardy traits that they are now recognized as their own breed: The RX3 ( Holstein X Red Angus ), The Beefmaker ( Hereford X Simmental ) and the Florida Cracker. The findings of this particular study outlined the benefits of such pairings:

Calf vigor

hybrid vigor

Feed Conversion


environmental tolerance

dietary tolerance

Overall general health long term

significantly reduced fertility and birth/delivery issues

In all considerations, the hybrid not only excelled as compared to the ‘ true bred’ offspring, but carried all the best qualities of the sire and dam.

Then too, there is an increase of the desirability and marketability of the Jersey steer or bull calf when combined with respected beef genetics. An article on AgWeb outlines a study by The University of Minnesota showing that the Jersey X Beef calves brought up to ten times more than straight Jersey male calves. In their study, they crossed a Jersey with a Limousin and the resulting calf was dubbed a ‘ Beef Builder’.

A study called : ‘ Production comparisons among various two breed cross cow groups’ observes that the Jersey cross is most efficient in calf weight ratio at weaning—the calf weight was highest for Jersey cross calves as compared to their dam’s weight at weaning age.

At SpiritGrove Farm we are inclined to agree with the findings of the various studies on cross bred bovines. We have had several here and have been impressed with each one for their personalities , appearances, qualities of meat and milk and abilities to gain and maintain weight on pasture. They seem to have less birth / rearing issues as indicated by recent studies and their production and quality of milk and beef have not disappointed.

It is recommended by all studies that to produce the best results with the top gains of genetic influences, one should pair a beef bull of sound breeding and genetics to a dairy cow of the same genetic appeal. We have done both here: Hereford bull to Jersey Cow and vice versa. I agree with the finding that beef over dairy is the best combination for primary beef production but my experience has been that a dairy bull of astute and exemplary breeding over a beef cow produces offspring with a greater milk production capability, while maintaining a high quality of beef; it just depends on what you’re looking for in a cross bred bovine.

  Here at our farm , we have further found that for the small farm, using miniature bulls of impressive genetics over thoughtfully cultivated Jerseys or Herefords , even standards, produces some added benefits–We keep a miniature Hereford and two miniature Jersey bulls for these effects:        Smaller calf size which lends itself to easy delivery, better weight maintenance of the dam through pregnancy and post calving, less risk of milk fever* that Jerseys are prone to due to their high production levels & propensity for difficulty  with maintaining weight and nutrients while in lactation– the smaller mini sired calf  puts less draw on the dam’s physical resources post calving.                                                                                                                           

There is also the benefit to the buyer of a thoughtfully cross bred percentage miniature bovine that requires less space on the small farm and does well on a variety of grazing situations.       

 * Milk fever is caused by a consumption of calcium from the tissues of the cow by the demand for milk production exceeding her ability to produce ( hypocalcaemia)* . 

There is a rising appreciation  for the dual purpose cow of quality breeding, particularly with a miniature influence. Multiple registries and other official entities in the mini bovine world, devote time and space on their pages to what is commonly referred to as the J-lo, Jey-Low or low line beef over Jersey cross. The lower cost and vitality, which parlays into ease of keeping is one of the appealing factors for the small farm or homestead. The dual purpose bovine does well on pasture and requires less cost to feed. They also can provide the obvious, both meat and milk for a family in a single animal or herd rather than keeping two separate breeds and possibly, two separate bulls. They are excellent candidates for organic, grass fed farmsteads. You can garner rich milk from a cross bred cow, but don’t necessarily have to milk them on a regular , twice daily schedule as they, with the mini genetics in the mix, are generally not heavy producers. And their offspring are just the cutest…there is that factor.

The bottom line is that the cross bred, dual purpose family cow is great for the bottom line, in all factors. I have spotlighted the Hereford X Jersey in this article because that is what I believe to be the best cross based on the information I have and the experiences I have with that pairing. This two breed cross works best for my intentions for my herd and provides my buyer and myself with excellent beef and dairy.

It is not the only superior cross out there.

Tammy Marr

SpiritGrove Farm

  • Any links to studies not included herein came from fee related resources, subscriptions or text books.

Other materials and resources:

Dairy and Beef cattle by Thomas

Animal Science and Technology by Miksell / Baker

The Future of Animal Farming by Dawkins

Grass Fed Cattle by Bennett

Farm Animal Well Being by Ewing /Lay & Von Borell

National Agriculture Library / USDA

Agricultural Sciences – SCIRP Journal of agricultural sciences