This article was #15 in PDmag's Top 25 most-well read articles in 2010. Summary:Two years into an eight-year crossbreeding study, University of Minnesota researcher Les Hansen shared some initial insights and findings. The research involved 10 Minnesota herds implementing a three-way crossbreeding program of Holstein, Swedish Red and Montbeliarde. Because this article was so popular, we asked Hansen a follow-up question:

Q. In the article, several questions remained to be answered, including concerns with calving difficulties and size variations. Were any of these concerns able to be solved or researched more in depth? If not, what kind of a timeline do you anticipate needing to develop solutions to these concerns?

A. Unfortunately, genetics research with dairy cattle takes place at a snail's pace. It just takes so much time! Therefore, at this point, we have nothing to report. The earliest results from this designed study will review the consequences of mating pure Holsteins (the foundation population) to Holstein versus Swedish Red versus Montbeliarde A.I. service sires on conception rate, actual calving rate, calving difficulty, stillbirth rate, and post-calving complications. Those results should become available about one year from now.

Dr. Les Hansen, Professor of dairy genetics, University of Minnesota

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Two years into an eight-year University of Minnesota crossbreeding study, participating dairy producers are positive about their initial observations and optimistic about the future. Long term, they look forward to achieving scientific results that will answer the question: Will a three-way crossbreeding program of Holstein, Swedish Red and Montbeliarde yield more profitable animals than their traditional breeding practices?

The 10 Minnesota herds in the eight-year University of Minnesota (U of M) crossbreeding study average 677 cows and over 27,000 pounds of milk. These innovators have chosen to shake things up a bit. By introducing non-Holstein genetics into their Holstein herds, they hope to bolster profitability through heterosis (hybrid vigor) and the desirable traits of the Swedish Red and Montbeliarde breeds.

The study participants look to crossbreeding as a strategy to improve health traits, reproduction, milk components and, ultimately, longevity to boost their bottom line. Seeing the performance of three-way crosses in several California herds and/or experiencing results from limited experimentation in their own herds, gave these producers the confidence to sign on for a long-term, controlled study that would generate accurate data.

The three-way cross is a key difference from typical crossbreeding programs.

“For many people the intuition after producing a cross is to breed back to Holstein, resulting in a two-way cross,” notes Dr. Les Hansen, professor of dairy genetics at the U of M, who along with junior scientist Amy Hazel, initiated the eight-year study. “The first cross is good because of 100 percent heterosis, but breeding back to the original breed results in the second cross yielding only 50 percent heterosis. With subsequent crosses, a two-way cross system levels off at 67 percent heterosis. Using a continuous three-breed rotation ultimately results in 86 percent heterosis.”

The three breeds used in the study include Holstein, Swedish Red and Montbeliarde. The medium-sized Swedish Red’s hallmarks include calving ease, fertility and healthy udders. The Montbeliarde, a French dairy breed, is known for outstanding feet and legs, healthy udders, body condition conducive to reproduction and production of high-quality protein. Holsteins are recognized worldwide for milk production and udder conformation. U of M researchers chose these three breeds for the study based on results seen in seven large California dairies, as well as herds in countries such as Italy, Spain, Germany and Portugal.

Because the first crossbreds in the study are just yearlings, participants can only comment on what they’ve experienced with young, first-cross animals: the F1 generation.

“The crossbreds are more aggressive with the bottle as calves,” observes Paul Daley of Daley Farms, Pine Island, Minnesota. “The weaned calves are healthier and more aggressive. They grow really well and are larger framed, more solid than the straight Holsteins – especially the Montbeliarde crosses.”

Vern Becker agrees.

“They are definitely more aggressive calves with a strong nursing instinct,” the Eden Valley, Minnesota, dairyman explains. “It’s easier to get them nursing on a bottle.”

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Like several of the participants who noted that calf health was not an issue prior to the study, Dr. Dana Allen, Eyota, Minnesota, did not see differences in calf health. She has noticed, however, their difference in size.

“They gain more efficiently, so they’re bigger,” says Allen, who is a partner in Gar-Lin Dairy, an 1,800-cow herd with a rolling herd average of 30,500 pounds of milk. She adds that even though some of the calves were big at birth, calving ease problems were not out of the norm for either cross. Gar-Lin Dairy has about 250 crossbred heifers in the study so far.

Carl Carlson of Carlson Dairy, Pennock, Minnesota, is reserving judgment about the Montbeliarde/Holstein cross after a few cases of calving difficulty. Greater numbers are needed to determine if it is indeed a concern, but for now he is willing to say he loves the Swedish Red/Holstein calves.

“They do well, they’re healthy, and they grow just as big as Holsteins,” he notes.

The challenge for some herdowners in the study is getting used to seeing animals that do not fit their traditional view of what a dairy animal looks like.

Allen says, “I was accustomed to the ‘show Holstein’ from all my years of 4-H and college judging team experience – it’s traumatic!”

Previous experience with crossbreds

During a trip prior to committing to the study, many of the participants saw firsthand how crossbreds were making a difference in California herds that had been crossbreeding Holsteins with Swedish Red and Montbeliarde for several years.

“I was encouraged by what I saw in California,” reflects Ken Herbranson, Brookside Dairy, Clitherall, Minnesota. “They were sturdy, hardy animals. The vet records also were impressive because of reduced expenditures. They certainly had longevity – one of the California herdowners said he had too many cows. I bought 35 springing crossbred heifers from him in spring 2008. Most of them are still here and milking well with comparable production and slightly higher components. They calve easily and transition quite successfully. The results were enough to say this looks promising.”

Becker also bought crossbred springers from California after being impressed with the herd health, fertility and longevity in the California crossbred herds. Fat-corrected milk for the crossbreds has been “pretty much even with our Holsteins,” he notes. “I’ve culled two of the 37 animals for production, but the rest are still here. They all calved and took right off.”

The California trip convinced Daley, who had crossbreeding experience in beef cattle and later with Holsteins and Jerseys, to take part in the crossbreeding study. “Rather than experiment on my own, I wanted to be part of a well-designed, structured trial with controls and enough numbers to provide reliable information,” he explains.

Over 4,100 head committed to the study

Participants in the study were required to commit at least 250 head to the study: a control group of at least 150 animals to be mated throughout the eight-year study with Holstein sires who rank above the 80th percentile for Net Merit index and a minimum of 100 head to be mated with top Swedish Red or Montbeliarde sires. Fifty percent of the heifers and cows in the crossbred group began the three-breed rotation with matings to a Swedish Red sire while the other fifty percent began with Montbeliarde.

More than one-half of the participants opted to commit more than the minimum numbers, including Gar-Lin Dairy, which committed 285 head to the control group and 500 to the crossbred group. “I’m research-oriented so it came down to math – we wanted enough numbers to compare within our herd as well,” Allen says. “The decision also was based on performance of ‘in-herd’ crossbreds where energy-corrected milk, reproduction and longevity were equal or better than the pure Holsteins.”

The first crossbreds were born in 2009. During 2010, the first crossbreds will be bred to sires from the third breed. The first three-breed crossbreds will be born in 2011 and will calve for the first time in 2013. By 2015, the last year of the study, the first three-breed crossbreds will begin their third lactations and the final number crunching can begin.

Many of the participants suggest that this crossbreeding model most likely would appeal to the commercial Holstein producer wishing to improve profitability through longevity from improved health traits and reproductive performance. Graziers that require a feed-efficient, hardy animal requiring little care also could benefit from crossbreds. Producers planning to expand could take advantage of the crossbreds’ longevity. Furthermore, organic dairy producers whose philosophy is not centered on high production, might be drawn to crossbreds to fit their need to restrict use of medications.

As with most new approaches, many questions remain to be answered. Some of the participants’ concerns include: feeding issues – due to their feed efficiency, crossbreds do a little too well on Holstein diets; calving ease – large Montbeliarde/Holstein calves could cause calving difficulties (the data will confirm or allay this concern); size variation – could cause problems in stalls, however, size varies less in this three-breed rotation than in Jersey/Holstein crossbreeding programs; disposition – Holsteins usually have excellent ‘parlor manners’ and that might not be the case with all types of crossbreds; value of crossbred animals – a lack of understanding or acceptance by buyers could mean a limited market for surplus animals; and finally, fear of losing too much Holstein influence – crossbreds might not achieve desired production levels.

“If I end up with a bunch of crossbreds that don’t measure up to the Holstein, I might lose a generation or two of genetics and progress,” Becker says. “But based on what I saw in California and my experience with crossbreds (approximately one-third of our 800 cows are crossbreds), I don’t think that will happen. We have been a member of a Farm Business Management group through Extension for the past nine years where we can compare our records to others in the group. We might not have bragging rights on tank average, but we’re feeling good about profitability. We believe the crosses made the difference. We’ve grown by 50 cows per year the last two years, and we are projected to grow by 75 for this year. I don’t know if that would have happened if we had only straight Holsteins.” PD

Janet Bosch is a freelance writer from Montevideo, Minnesota, with close ties to the dairy industry. She graduated from U of M in animal science.

PHOTO 1:This Swedish Red/Holstein crossbred calf at Becker Dairy, Eden Valley, Minnesota is from a dam that was a red carrier.

PHOTO 2:The white-faced calf above is a Montbeliarde/Holstein cross at Carlson Dairy, Pennock, Minnesota. Some of the study’s participants admit that it takes time to get used to seeing heavier-built, white-faced animals in their herds. Photos courtesy of Janet Bosch.