All In Black

Angus Blood Gets a Dose of Heterosis

Angus genetics dominate the nation's beef herd, but some producers worry hybrid vigor is fading. (Photo courtesy American Simmental Association)

Ten years ago, Franklin Lindsay purchased purebred Angus heifers for replacements. At that time, Certified Angus Beef (CAB) was all the rage and black-hided cattle ruled the roost in feeder-calf markets.

Black cattle are still in style, but during the last few years the Clinton, N.C., producer has changed course in his 275-cow beef herd. Now his herd is mostly half-blood Simmental-Angus (SimAngus) cows. His 50,000-pound truckloads of feeder calves are still overwhelmingly black (97% black and 3% red) and the crossbred calves attract serious demand from feedlot buyers.

"For a few years, I was getting too much straight Angus blood in my herd and losing the benefits of heterosis," the veteran cattleman said. "Feedlot buyers like SimAngus calves as well or better than straight Angus calves."

Case in point: Lindsay sold a truckload of his 2015 steers in July. They averaged 600 pounds for $2.38 per pound. He also sold a truckload of heifers that averaged 575 pounds for $2.28 per pound. He didn't wean and precondition the calves.

The feedlot wanted them immediately and Lindsay now has an agreement with that buyer to sell his 2016 calf crop at the same prices.


During the past 20 years, North Carolina Extension livestock agent Paul Gonzalez has seen many of the area's beef herds move toward straight Angus genetics. Breeding mixed cows to Angus bulls and keeping the heifers as replacements is an easy way to build a predominately black calf crop.

After four generations of breeding cows to Angus bulls and retaining heifers, the replacements are 94% Angus, Gonzalez said.

The livestock agent emphasized there's nothing wrong with that. The Angus breed has made tremendous contributions to beef herds in the Southeast. If producers want calving ease, the Angus breed has bulls that sire low-birthweight calves. If producers want growth, there are Angus bulls that sire calves with as much growth as bulls from Continental breeds. There are Angus bulls known as "curve-benders" that sire low-birthweight calves, which rapidly grow to high yearling weights.


What producers give up with straight Angus cattle, however, is the power of heterosis (hybrid vigor), Gonzalez said. And that can represent a significant opportunity when it comes to pounds produced.

"When a producer comes to me and asks why his straight Angus steers are sliding back from averaging 500 pounds to only 480, I usually suggest he's losing the power of heterosis and giving up essentially 20 free pounds of beef per steer," Gonzalez explained.

The livestock specialist described hybrid vigor as the improvement shown by crossbred animals over straight-bred animals. The amount of improvement varies depending on breeds used, but weaning weights will average about 4% higher for crossbred calves over straight-bred calves that are both nursing straight-bred cows.

This means another 20 pounds on each 500-pound calf just for switching to bulls from a second breed. If you have 25 cows, that is like selling another calf. Not only do the calves weigh more, but survivability in crossbred calves is higher, for a 3% advantage in weaning percentage. A crossbred female even produces one additional calf on average over her lifetime because of an edge in longevity.


Gonzalez points out there are homozygous black bulls available in Continental breeds, so using Angus bulls isn't the only way to produce black calves. Simply rotating a different breed of bull into a predominantly Angus herd injects a degree of hybrid vigor. Gelbvieh, Limousin, Simmental and other Continental breeds offer homozygous black bulls.

Gonzalez offered one example: Use a homozygous black Simmental bull on straight Angus cows to produce crossbred steers and heifers. Then breed the resulting crossbred heifers to a SimAngus bull to maintain a degree of hybrid vigor.

Producers lose some heterosis by using the same two breeds, but this is a simple system. Bringing in a bull from a third breed increases heterosis in the calves compared to a two-breed system.


Commercial producers looking for heterosis are shopping seedstock suppliers like Claussen's Simmental and Red Angus, of Bettendorf, Iowa.

From a seedstock perspective, Ron Claussen is seeing a slight shift in demand by commercial producers toward hybrid animals and producers are specifically interested in red cattle.

The Claussen family originally ran commercial cattle and started into the purebred business with Simmental seedstock in 1978. As demand increased for black-hided cattle, Ron added Angus bulls and heifers in 1993 to give customers the black option. Claussen added Red Angus seedstock in 1995.

"It depends on their marketing plans. Guys that send calves to local sale barns usually want black-hided calves because they see them sell for a few cents more a pound," Claussen said.

"Some of my customers that retain ownership of their calves through the feedlot are leaning toward red cattle. There are now value-added programs that are alternatives to Certified Angus Beef," he added.

The producer said the newest trend he's seeing is one where feedlot buyers want to see white blazes on the foreheads of calves. The blaze indicates a percentage of Continental blood, and feedlots like the performance of these calves.

Claussen sells both red and black SimAngus bulls and heifers. He has three levels of Simmental genetics available: purebred, 75% and 50%. His SimAngus bulls are either 50% Angus/50% Simmental or 75% Simmental/25% Angus.


Back in the steamy Coastal Plain of eastern North Carolina, Lindsay has a herd of 30 red SimAngus cows, a subset of his total 275 females. He likes the heat tolerance of red cows.

"On hot days, the red cows are out there grazing for hours after the black cows have gone under the trees to lay in the shade," he noted. "I probably won't increase the percentage of red cows in my herd, but some of my neighbors are going to red cows for their heat tolerance."


Angus cattle have a distinct advantage in marbling ability, according to research from the USDA Agricultural Research Service U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC), in Clay Center, Neb.

Marbling is a highly heritable trait and is the most common limiting factor for Angus-type cattle that miss the Certified Angus Beef (CAB) target.

"Do Angus marble better than the other 13 breeds we tested? The answer is 'yes'," USMARC researcher Mark Thallman pointed out. "If CAB is your target, a higher percentage of straight Angus calves will eventually grade in the top two-thirds of Choice, a requirement for CAB."

On the other hand, the benefit of heterosis on weaning weight is estimated to be about 20 pounds per calf, based on USMARC research. For example, an F1 cross between a Simmental and an Angus would be expected to weigh approximately 28 pounds more at weaning than a purebred Angus calf, Thallman explained. USMARC researchers base their research results on 1,935 progeny of 162 Angus sires at Clay Center.

Many commercial producers have shied away from Continentals because of high birthweights, large body size and excessive milking ability. High-milking beef cows require rations with more energy, protein, calcium and phosphorus if they are to rebreed and produce a calf every year. However, Continental seedstock producers have moderated their respective breeds in these important traits.

At the same time, Angus cows now have the largest average mature body weight of every breed except Charolais in the USMARC research report. The combination of heavy body weight and high milk production has raised the maintenance (feed) requirements for average Angus females.