A three-breed rotational cross of Holstein, Swedish Red and Montbeliarde could deliver better health and fertility than the modern Holstein – which is too inbred – and achieve high milk yields, says a US breeding expert.

Les Hansen of the University of Minnesota is overseeing probably the largest breeding trial using a the tri-breed rotation to rid US dairy herds of the Holstein’s flaws. “I love Holsteins – don’t get me wrong – but we’ve fashioned a cow to look good and produce milk, but at the expense of health, fertility and longevity,” he said. “That’s wrong.”

Speaking to members of the Cheshire Grassland Society, Prof Hansen warned that the US and Canadian Holstein genetics so favoured by UK breeders and AI companies came from too narrow a gene pool. “If you look at some of the leading sires – Elevation, Chief, Blackstar – they all go back to just four grand sires,” he said.

Fashion, not economics, had shaped the Holstein, he suggested. “Look at the traits ignored by Holstein breeders until recently, but favoured by other breeds – calving difficulty, stillbirth (12% in the USA), cow fertility, health and longevity. And we’re paying the price for that.

“Too many Holsteins die on farms – many before completing a second lactation – that we don’t get the chance to pick our culls. They’re dying for us.”

Fundamental flaws were exacerbated by breed records, he warned. US longevity figures masked the number of heifers that died in the first lactation. “Producers would have to pay a cow fee to record the lactation,” he said. “They say what would be the point – she’s dead. So we don’t see what’s actually happening to daughters at farm level.”

The deep-bodied, sleek-shouldered Holstein, seen as superior to the “short, stocky Friesian or other dairy breed”, lacked the ability to survive, he said. “It’s no wonder we see so many suffering liver disease and ketosis in early lactation. We’ve bred a cow to milk off her body fat as soon as she calves.”

Even the way Holsteins were presented in pictures made fools of producers, said Prof Hansen. “Know why we stand the front feet on a board and have gone for cows tall in the front quarter? They photograph better.

“It’s said it helped the Holstein’s big udder sit back and not look too heavy forward of the leg. But, hey, I know a great daughter picture can sell an awful lot of semen.”

The entire Holstein breeding sector was caught up in its own spin, he said. “I even stand next to breeders at the shows who say ‘Look, isn’t she a wonderful deep-bodied cow’. But what does that support? Bigger capacity?

“I haven’t seen a research trial yet that supports the argument that it makes a better animal. But I do hear of a lot of twisted stomachs.”

In Minnesota, attention had turned to a large-scale trial crossing dairy breeds such as Jersey, Swedish Red and Montbeliarde on the Holstein to improve performance, he said.

“By crossing one breed with another, you get a benefit in performance. It’s called hetrosis, or hybrid vigour, and has been used extensively by the poultry and pig sectors for many years.”

The practice, ironically first recorded in the UK by the great agricultural forefather Robert Bakewell of the Dishley Agricultural Society, Leicestershire, in the 1800s, depressed the effects of inbreeding, said Prof Hansen.

“Where do we get the most improvement? Cow fertility, reduced stillbirths, better health, lower mortality, better longevity. We all know it is better to buy a mutt than a pedigree poodle because it’ll be healthier and live longer. It’s the same argument for cows.”

Californian studies supported by seven leading dairies were crossing Holsteins cows to top AI sires from breeds such as Normande, Montbeliarde and Scandinavian Red, he said.

“The results are impressive. There’s the Holstein with its higher yield , fat and protein, but with a hetrosis coefficient of 3.5%. Look what the crossbred is doing – pretty similar yield, higher constituents and, this is the important bit, look at the number of days open [period from calving to conception] – down a massive 21 days.

“You know if you want cows to last, you have to get them back in calf.”

Similar effects had been recorded in breeding trials in France crossing Holstein with top AI sires from the Montbeliarde breed, he said. “Other traits improve. The Montbeliarde throws more black claws and we know foot trimmers tell us you get fewer foot problems.”

So what was being achieved? Straight away, deaths within the first lactation had been cut from 8.7% for Holstein to 2.6% for crossbreds, said Prof Hansen.

Production figures highlighted the Holstein as queen of yield, but crossbreds in the second and third lactations were all within 10%, with the Scandinavian Red just 3%. Constituents could be matched equally, he reported.

“And you’re getting those results with better fertility, more cows left in the herd after two lactations, and fewer health problems.”

For producers in the UK with either Holstein or Holstein Friesian genetics, Prof Hansen suggested making an immediate start in crossbreeding to rid the sector of the Holstein’s legacy. “Yes, you can dip your toe and wait to see what a first few crossbreds look like. But I know as soon as you see them what you’ll do next.”

Always go for top progeny-recorded sires from selected dairy breeds, he said. Work with a breeding adviser – not necessarily the semen salesman, because producers’ ability to look objectively at figures flashed before them in glossy brochures had to the “pitiful state” of many herds – and pick breeds to suit the farm system.

It would not all be painless, said Prof Hansen. Crossbreds could be harder to manage – the Holstein x Jersey being a case in point as already used in some UK herds to improve fertility and milk fat – but more tetchy in the parlour.

“If you have your first cross, say a Holstein x Jersey which we call a HoJo in the USA, don’t put it back to a Holstein. We call that a flip-flop. A third crossbreeding continues the effect of hetrosis rather than diluting what you’ve already achieved.”

But wasn’t a three-way crossbreeding programme complex to manage? “No,” he stressed. “I hear this from breeders and AI people all the time.

“Use a coloured ear tag system like we do in the USA. Holstein has blue put that to a Swedish Red and give the offspring an orange tag. Put that to a Montbeliarde and give it a red tag, and so the cycle runs on just three colours. It’s that simple.”

But what of the modern Holstein? Holstein UK’s Lucy Andrews, who attended Prof Hansen’s speech, said many of the negative traits he highlighted were being tackled by UK breeders.

“We’ve started putting negative rating on deep bodies and angularity. Goals for UK breeders have changed significantly, so producers will have a lot more variation when it comes back to crossing with the Holstein.”

Prof Hansen was nonplussed. “I hear what you say and it’s good to know, but you are coming back to the same narrow gene pool,” he said. “You can’t ignore that.”

To back up established studies, the University of Minnesota was co-ordinating an eight-year trial across 10 dairies involving 4185 cows, 40% bred to Holstein and the rest to Montbeliarde or Swedish Red AI bulls, he said. “A full economic analysis based on actual, not predicted, production will show the benefits of hetrosis or crossbreeding.”

Overcoming the Holstein legacy of failing fertility and poor longevity would be vital for the economic success of dairy herds in the USA and the UK, he said. “And from the looks of some of the crossbred heifers we have on the ground, it’s going to attract a lot of attention.”

CAP: Holsteins have been bred from three or four historic lines and this is reflected in their fragility, claims Les Hansen