16 February 1996


One large-scale US beef producer is cross-breeding to target specific markets. Rebecca Austin reports

LEACHMAN Cattle Company, the USs leading purebred and crossbred beef breeding enterprise based in Billings, Montana, harnesses a cross-breeding strategy to meet industry requirements in terms of market specifications.

Lee Leachman, general manager of the 24,282ha (60,000-acre) estate which runs 2000 suckler cows, describes his cows as composites. Most are hybrids bred to best satisfy consumer demands by combining breeds which offer differing characteristics. Consumer demands dictate variety in:

&#8226 Market weight

&#8226 Marbling

&#8226 Tenderness

&#8226 Yield, in terms of percentage edible product from liveweight.

To meet these different requirements he uses performance records, and selects stock using estimated breeding values.

"Our breeding programme is a violent departure from tradition, but something we have to consider is how we harness cross breeding in the future to try and raise our own replacements which will produce progeny that meet market demands," says Mr Leachman.

"The idea is a cross breeding strategy. We create an intermediate – in our case a blend of English and Continental breeds – to hit carcass specifications. We duplicate it and do so in a way that we maintain hybrid vigour.

"For example, a Simmental x Angus cow, from a production standpoint, fits our system because she is moderated in size by her British influence, but has good milk production from the Simmental. She hits carcass specifications due to her blend of Continental yield and English marbling. But how do we perpetuate that? If we breed her to an English cross bull, the steer then becomes too English. Breed her to Continental and the product becomes too lean – unless we aim for that particular market.

"So we mate that intermediate to another intermediate to produce a four-way cross that keeps the percentage English and Continental the same. By cross-breeding in that manner we reduce the variation in breed composition within our herd. Instead of oscillating in biological type from one type to another we mate animals that are intermediates of the same combination of types and so variation actually decreases."

The company raises three different composite lines focused at different markets:

&#8226 Stabiliser: 50% British, 50% Continental breeding. For example a cross of Red Angus, Hereford, Simmental, Gelbvieh with carcasses weighing 330kg dw at 15 months. Beef suited to the mainstream American beef market. Premiums for yield and marbling stand at £26 a head over the average price.

&#8226 Rangemaker: 75% British, 25% Continental blood. For example Red or Black Angus, South Devon, or Tarentaise.

Carcasses weigh 360kg dw when slaughtered at 16 months and command a £26 a head premium. Beef has high marbling and is marketed as prime beef to steak houses, which is the fastest growing market unable to satisfy demand.

&#8226 Rangecalver: combination Rangemaker and Jersey breeding. The Jersey is high in marbling, has a low birth weight, moderate mature size and high milk production. A Rangecalver bull is designed to go on maiden heifers and produces female replacements. Male offspring are marketed into a high quality beef niche outlet.

Mr Leachman is also working with Pietmontese and Belgian Blue bulls on English x Continental bred cows to try to develop a terminal cross composite for the lean beef, health-conscious market.

"We have blanketed the market niches and targets that we see in the US today, " he says.

"But if stock isnt selected and is bred without using EBVs we are unable to make any progress," he adds. As a result 100% of matings are based on EBVs.

"We mate cows based on a computer printout that gives EBVs on the cow and a characterisation of her size, milk production, birth weight and growth rate. Mating decisions are based on those numbers alone with no subjective evaluation of her phenotype." &#42

&#8226 Eight employees, "cowboy operation" with all cattle managed on horseback.

&#8226 Cattle run over 24,282ha (60,000 acres) of native pasture, semi-arid, 14in moisture – 40% as snow.

&#8226 Freezes in September, but cattle left out year round.

&#8226 Bulls weaned and fed a mixed ration of corn silage, chopped hay, chopped straw and protein supplement to gain 1.5kg/day.

&#8226 Cost of production 73p/kg, compared with 44p/kg for top US pig producers.

&#8226 Believe in vertical integration to be competitive.


Above: The Rangecalver (Rangemaker x Jersey) bullbred for use on maiden heifers to produce female replacements. Male offspring are marketed to a high quality beef niche. Below: All cattle on Lee Leachmans 60,000-acre, 2000-cow unit in Montana are managed cowboy-style on horseback.