n my blog post entitled ‘ The case for the dual purpose cow ‘ , I introduced the various studies and theories touting the dual-purpose hybrid as the perfect homestead and small farm cow. In this essay, I aim to explain and illustrate the differences between the breeding options and what each brings to the table, literally, as a family cow.
When cultivating or buying a dual purpose, hybrid family cow, there are two basic genetic options, each producing a different result in the family cow and a different body type. There is beef over dairy, which means that a beef bull of a pure breed is used to service a dairy cow or heifer of a particular breed. Or, Dairy of beef, which is a pure bred dairy bull servicing a pure bred beef cow or heifer. Many studies recommend that using the bull that carries the qualities you most want to see will allow you to reap the highest ratio of benefit from those traits in a calf than the reverse breeding. I do not disagree with that thinking, except that I have found that certain breeds such as Angus simply have such strong genetic influence no matter what type of bull they are bred to, their strongest traits, such as their coloration and muscle structure will convey to the calf.
That fact being stated, the Angus cow bred to the thoughtfully cultivated dairy bull, will provide a future family cow with the production capabilities of her sire’s line and the beef quality and build of her dam. For a couple of years, I milked an Angus X Holstein that was huge ! She was a heavy producer of wonderful milk, but looked like a giant Angus cow. She threw wonderful, sturdy calves that were excellent for beef due to her build and Angus genetics, but also made excellent potential family milk cows due to her own ability to produce when combined with a dairy bull.
From a purist standpoint, these are ‘ mutt ‘ cows and in a sense, that is true. I rather like to think of them in terms of being a ‘designer’ breed, such as a labradoodle is to dog fanciers. Though not recognized in show circuits, those dogs are deliberately bred and coveted for the best qualities of both the Labrador Retriever and the Standard Poodle and their owners have nothing but glowing praise for their lack of the typical behavioral and genetic weaknesses that each of the two individual breeds suffer singularly. That being stated, one must thoughtfully plan and develop a herd plan, choosing the finest specimens with the most desirable genetics, otherwise one just ends up with a herd full of ill bred mongrels.
A hybrid or cross-bred cow of any kind will likely lack the genetic frailties that can be present with the pure bred cow of any kind and will possess all of her most desired features and attributes in an enhanced degree through the naturally occurring genetic process of heterosis. Heterosis is the tendency of a crossbred individual to show desirable qualities superior to those of both parents.
Also known as outbreeding enhancement in the cattle world, the cross bred individual tends to possess the best of the best qualities of both sire and dam; in essence, those traits which would make the offspring a stronger, more productive, more psychologically sound and more vigorous animal.
Hybrid vigor from the beef / dairy cross is remarkable:
The impressive feed efficiency and conversion lends itself to a calf which grows out leaner and faster than it’s pure bred counterparts on the same feed schedule and quality of grazing and supplementals. This makes them outstanding candidates for the organic farm or grass fed herd keeper.
Even the smallest addition of beef genetics, such as a dairy bull over a dual purpose , cross bred cow will improve the offspring’s ability to maintain and gain weight while securing her production capability and milk quality. If you look at the history of most pure bred miniature cows, they became minis because somewhere way, way back in their genetic lines, so far back that the fact has dropped off their record even in registered lines, there was an introduction of an already miniature beefy type breed such as the dexter. Dexters are commonly introduced to ‘ bring down’ the size of a herd. Viewed as a natural ‘ dual purpose’ breed, Dexters are a fine choice to accomplish a herd of smaller stature, adding the low line height and keeping at least a partial dairy component to the genetic blend.
This blending for smaller size is also the reason we see miniature Jersey cows that are stocky and well muscled, as opposed to the classic Jersey frame. While I prefer the smaller, classic Jersey look in my minis from a personal aesthetic viewpoint , they are more difficult to keep in condition as compared to what I refer to as the ‘ short stocky’ mini. Frankly, it has been my experience and the experience of my friends who keep them that the stubby, beefy mini Jersey is just hardier and easier to keep all around.
One of the more impressive benefits of the dual purpose family cow is their ability to gain and maintain weight even when solely fed on appropriate vegetation. As anyone who has kept pure bred dairy cows such as classic Jerseys or Holsteins knows, it is difficult to keep weight on them as a general rule when they are nursing or milking. Milk production is hard on the body of a dairy cow if she is not in prime condition and keeping a dairy cow in prime condition while in milk is a difficult task that requires lots of planning and scheduling. Furthermore, once a dairy loses condition, it takes a very long time and feed alterations to put it back on her. This is a tricky area, as you do not want to overfeed a dairy cow. Overfeeding can produce results which are just as harmful as those an under conditioned cow may bring, such as acidosis or causing her to ‘ push ‘ production, using her increased intake to produce more milk by volume, which leaves her at square one.
The thrift of the cross bred calf inclines it to be more tolerant of stress, climate changes and have more resistance to parasites and disease. The cross bred calf also gains faster on less feed and is market ready up to 1/3 faster than the pure bred calf.
The outbred cow ( bred outside it’s genetic pattern ie…dairy X beef ) will produce young that can expect a longer life span and stronger production abilities both in meat and milk. Her heifer calf will benefit from calving ease and less risk of milk fever and the like. The increase of the offspring’s milk production quantity and quality by adding a sound dairy line to beef genetics, will ensure her future calves have access to copious amounts of rich milk for nursing and an ample amount of fine milk for a family, plus feed efficient and well muscled steer calves for the table.
The well bred family cow comes from decades of focused selection and responsible breeding to garner the best of the best traits from the cream of the crop lines, regardless to the breed or cross. Every farmer serious about her profession has a herd plan. Every herd plan differs to some degree. One farmer may have a smaller size as her primary goal, while another may focus on a herd and calves to offer that do well being entirely entirely grass fed. One may seek high production capabilities, while another may lean to a richer milk to offer in her stock. This is why it is so important to recognize what your own goals and needs are in a family cow or herd before you start looking at what is out there to buy.
Do you want a cow that is a steady and high volume producer of milk and do you have the time in your schedule to milk her twice a day as required for such a cow? If you do not wish or do not have the ability to be tied to milking a cow religiously twice daily for a majority of the year, you would probably be well suited with a dual purpose cross bred cow. Most of them, bred for quality of milk, rather than quantity, can be milked only once a day if she has her calf with her to nurse regularly and I know of several folks who successfully keep healthy, productive dual purpose cows who leave the calf on her for the whole of her lactation and milk only when they need or want to.
The best pairings if seeking a hybrid family cow will result from a bull of stout, superior genetic lines over a dam of equally impressive representation. In the instance of cultivating a strong, dual purpose hybrid dairy cow, one would always seek a calf resulting from a pairing of dairy bull over beef cow. The bull carries the most influential dairy traits, so one would desire a bull whose lines are rife with heavy producers and sound physical qualities. Chances are that some of the production volume of his lines will be lost to the pairing with a beef dam, but that is not always the case. I have seen plenty of ‘ beefy’ looking cross bred cows which are impressive producers of the nicest milk, have gorgeous, huge udders and would give a well bred Jersey a run for her money in production.
Are you leaning toward both meat and milk for the table? If so, you would do well with a beef over dairy mix, giving more of an even genetic draw between the two. The hybrid calf has a propensity toward thicker and more complex muscling, making for a superb cut of beef and sturdier animal with the added gains of having to provide a substantially lower amount of supplemental feeds.
Are you looking to build a herd that not only provides for the family, but leaves product to offer for sale? The odds are best that you would either need a pure bred cow from strong dairy lines or a cross bred cow with a strong dairy influence, such as the cow I mentioned above which was Holstein X Angus. In this case, there is the bonus of retaining the beef benefits of the Angus. While the milk from this sort of cross is divine, the cream line would likely not be as thick.
Knowing your seller would be of the utmost importance when considering a cross bred bovine, as you are placing your trust that cow will meet your needs and the seller is being honest about the genetics behind her. As with any intentional breeding, a beneficial cross bred cow must come from a responsible source. Any farmer I know personally will tell you upfront in an offering what percentage beef to dairy is in their cross bred calf / heifer and what purposes they believe she would be best suited for. Honesty is crucial in a seller, as is reputation. You are dependent on the selling farmer to keep the animals well and breed them responsibly. As well as gaining all of the most desirable genetics from a pairing of any type, you also gain any anomalies or undesirable characteristics if they are present in the sire or dam, or the recent ancestry line. Aggravations and worries such as calving issues, Milk Fever propensity and structural anomalies such as hoof issues, supra numery teats, structural disorders of the udder, etc…can all be inherited from a line carrying the genetic influences and some of these will not present until the heifer or cow calves for you the first time. Common genetic issues can also ‘ skip’ a generation just as they do in humans. It doesn’t bother me at all to know up front that a certain cow is predisposed to MF at purchase because I can be prepared and have experience. However, it can be a very scary surprise for a novice bovine keeper to find her cow down and not be aware or prepared for what to do for her.
* Please note that MF can present in any cow, whether she has a history of it or not, but the higher degree of incidence of MF is commonly found to run in the line.
On our farm, we primarily keep Jerseys and Hereford, miniature and standard, because I have found through my own experiences, research and feedback I’ve received both from professionals and other farmers that they are the most dependable, sound and stable breeds of the beef and dairy world separately. We have further found that the combination of these two breeds for the hybrid, dual purpose cow, is respected by scholars and farmers and kept in many places worldwide for the very reasons I appreciate the individual breeds and the hybrid cow. In my post : ‘ The case for the cross bred dual purpose cows’, found on our page in the left column, I reference many studies and articles touting the benefits of such pairings.
The recent trend toward miniature cattle of all types is not an unfounded nor illogical movement. The mini or percentage mini hybrid carries all the bonuses of the standard breedings, without the cost or space requirements of the standard cow. All of our bulls are carefully selected registered miniatures from reputable sources. This ensures our ability to pass on only sound temperament and physical traits. It also allows us to ‘ breed down’ our standard girls, so that they produce smaller calves with the best of the dam’s features. If your needs are not great in a family cow with regards to how much milk product you require, I strongly recommend a reliably bred mini hybrid. She will likely provide ‘ just enough’ for the family if you do your homework and buy from a trustworthy source where selective breedings are employed.
Hybrid photos from our farm