Things aren’t just black and white at Majestic Crossing Dairy. For brothers Dean and Darren Strauss, a three-way crossbreeding program has added colors to their barn, components to their milk and cash to their bottom line.
The three-way cross
In 2003, the Strausses of Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, began crossing their purebred Holstein virgin heifers to Jersey genetics, seeking to leverage calving, fertility and cheese yield benefits. While they enjoyed the hybrid vigor of that first generation, they questioned the next move.
“As for the next cross, we realized we needed to add in a third breed, and that’s when we started researching Viking Red and Montbeliarde,” Dean recalls.
Their search led them to California, where a handful of herds were milking their first 2-year-olds from a three-way crossbreeding program. They were using a strategic stack of Viking Red, Montbeliarde and Holstein from a company called Creative Genetics to create the “ProCross” cow.
Little research was available at the time, but Dean and Darren knew they liked what they saw: viable cows on excellent feet and legs with the strength and will to milk.
Dean and Darren returned home and implemented the crossbreeding plan into their herd. Today, the original 900-cow dairy is 100 percent crossbred, and a second site with 1,100 cows is in the process of converting from Holstein to ProCross.
A ‘paradigm shift’
Venturing into the world of crossbreeding taught Dean and Darren to view their herd in a different way, in both the barn and on their balance sheet.
“It was a change in eyesight, a classic paradigm shift,” Darren says.
Words like “deep,” “sharp” and “angular” are gone from their vocabulary. These days, he describes his ideal cow as “medium stature, with the ability to carry width through her shoulders and chest and all the way through her body … not that long, lean neck – no sharpness over the withers.”
They admit it took a little time to get used to the range of colors and rounder shape of their transforming herd, but as they let go of the former ideals and embraced these smaller, sturdier cows, the financial statements also began to confirm they were headed down the right track for their future.
Having separate accounting for their two herds gave them real numbers to compare.
“We ran the numbers just from a cost standpoint, and this one [the 100 percent crossbred herd] was hands-down more efficient,” Dean states. “Profitability per cow was higher here.”
Dean and Darren credit their ProCross cows with gaining efficiencies and improving overall profitability in several key areas:
Cheese yield (components)
Located in the heart of a cheese market, components are king at Majestic Crossing Dairy. With a fat test pushing 4.2 percent and 3.4 percent protein, Dean finds satisfaction in maximizing the profit potential of each tanker he sends down the road.
“Milk is just a vehicle to move components,” he says. “It’s no longer about how much milk we are shipping or the milk price; the value is in components and feed efficiency.”
Not only does the dairy capture premiums for solids, but they also capitalize on milk quality, averaging an impressive 100,000 somatic cell count year-round.
Darren identifies the ability for cows to have more live calves on their own as a major stride in mothering. Their crossbred cows run an average dead-on-arrival rate of 5 percent compared to the 10 percent average he sees with their remaining purebred Holsteins.
In fact, most of the cows calve with no assistance or only that of the milkers; thus, they save the salary of a full-time fresh pen employee.
“We love low-maintenance cows,” the brothers remark, noting that their crossbred cows are fairly trouble-free. They deal with very few metabolic disorders; in fact, they no longer test for ketosis in the fresh pen. “We save on those vacuums that suck time and energy in the sick pen,” Darren adds.
Not only do their crossed cows require fewer groceries than their purebred herdmates (48 pounds versus 56 pounds of dry matter), but the brothers also notice that crossing the Holstein creates a more moderate cow equipped to carry body condition throughout her lactation.
Dean explains, “That ability comes with a different twist. When you have the ability to carry condition, you can reproductively gain benefits, and that’s where the feed savings and efficiency comes in.”
Darren attributes the aforementioned ability to carry conditioning as a critical factor in fertility, touting a pregnancy rate right around 30 percent and conception rate nearing 50 percent. Cows tend to breed back quickly, keeping the breeding curve tight and average days open between 105 and 110.
Dean has definitely noticed that with better fertility comes fewer problem breeders. “The days of cystic cows are pretty much done,” he says.
Reproductive success also enabled them to grow the second herd from 700 to 1,100 cows over just five years without the use of sexed semen and only a handful of purchased cattle.
Current breeding program
These days, Darren says mating cows is simple. “When we pick bulls, we look at udder, production and cheese yield. We don’t even have to worry about analyzing for feet and legs or inbreeding.”
He further adds that their cross no longer includes Jersey. “We’ve pulled the Jersey out because we can accomplish everything we liked about the Jersey with the ProCross, and we get uniformity of size,” he says.
Looking back on their decision to cross their cows, both brothers agree, “Knowing what we know now, we should have done it sooner.” PD
PHOTO: Brothers Dean (left) and Darren (right) Strauss of Majestic Crossing Dairy converted their former Holstein herd to a three-way cross adding Montbeliarde and Viking Red genetics. Photo by Peggy Coffeen.
Minnesota study indicates crossbred cows could be more profitable
The University of Minnesota recently released an update from an ongoing 10-year crossbreeding study. According to the paper “Comparison of Montbeliarde × Holstein and Viking Red × Holstein crossbreds with pure Holstein cows during first lactation in eight commercial dairies in Minnesota” written by Les Hansen, Amy Hazel and Brad Heins, “… results from the first lactation suggest that Montbeliarde-Holstein and Viking Red-Holstein cows should be more profitable than their pure Holstein herdmates because they gave birth to more live calves, required less reproductive cost and had higher survival rates.
“Furthermore, the crossbreds produced at least as much milk solids as their pure Holstein herdmates and returned to peak production sooner for their second lactation.”
To view the full study, visit Crossbred cows competitive with Holsteins on first lactation, study finds.