The world’s longest running study comparing crossbred dairy cows with purebred Holsteins
has delivered its final conclusions. The study has demonstrated that ProCROSS cattle,
which are bred using a three-breed cross of Holstein, Montbeliarde and Viking Red, produce
daily profits which are, on average, 9-13% greater than those from a pure Holstein.
The financial advantage of the ProCROSS was demonstrated to come from a range of
factors including greater lifetime production of fat plus protein solids, better fertility, fewer
health treatments, higher calf and cull values and improved rates of survival.
When production of fat plus protein was converted to a daily basis, the crossbred cattle
produced between 1% more for the two-breed crossbreds (Viking Red × Holstein and
Montbeliarde × Holstein) and 1% less for the three-breed crossbreds, than their Holstein
However, the substantial difference in the crossbreeds’ economic performance stemmed
from their lower costs of production. The cost savings were made through significantly lower
reproductive costs (eg improved conception rate to first service by up to 8.7%, and up to 17
fewer days open), up to 23% lower health costs (particularly attributable to less mastitis and
metabolic disease), and lower feed costs (during both lactation and the dry period).
Besides, the greatest single contributor to the lower expenses for the ProCROSS cattle
came through their lower replacement costs. These, in turn, were explained by almost twice
the level of survival to fourth lactation (41%) compared with the Holstein (22%).
Once all income (including milk quality penalties) and costs of production were considered,
the two-breed cross made an average additional profit of up to 13% per day more than the
Holstein, while the three-breed cross added 9% per day.
First crossbreeding trial on such a scale
The trial, which was undertaken by researchers at the University of Minnesota, was the first
to assess the benefits of crossbreeding on such a scale and through such a highly structured
breeding programme. Running over the course of 10 years, it has involved participation by
around 2,300 ProCROSS and 2,000 Holstein cattle across seven herds.
These were highperformance, commercial herds in which animals had the opportunity to
express their genetic potential. For each of the three breeds, semen was used from
high-ranking proven bulls, corrective breeding was carried out for conformation, and matings were protected
Average production (December 2017) across the herds was 13,587kg
milk, 512kg fat and 426kg protein, and each herd surpassed standard benchmarks for the
fertility expected of Holsteins.
Professor Les Hansen, who led the research, with participation by Dr Amy Hazel and
Professor Bradley Heins, presented the findings to journalists and dairymen from 11
European countries in July.
Speaking on 2nd July during the ProCROSS Summit 2019, hosted by Koole & Liebregts BV,
(the official ProCROSS distributor in the Netherlands), he said: “The improved performance
of the crossbred cattle resulted from a combination of hybrid vigour (or heterosis) – which
gives the outcrossed animal better performance than the average of its parents – and
the choice of breeds selected for the ProCROSS programme.
Each breed complement and balance each other
“The genetic effects contributed by each breed are complementary, each conferring
attributes which balance another,” Mr Hansen continued. “For example, the Holstein
brings production and udder traits; the Montbeliarde brings fertility, body condition and
strength; and the Viking Red – itself an amalgam of the Swedish Red, Finnish Ayrshire, and
Danish Red breeding programmes – brings calving traits, udder health and fertility.”
Motivating the research was said to be concern for the breeding direction in the Holstein and
its dominance of international dairying.
Describing the breed as ‘almost a monoculture for milk production globally’, he said: “The
Holstein industry has been tremendously successful in selection for milk production over the
past 40 years but it has also selected strongly for larger body size and more angularity.
“Since all three of these traits have genetic antagonism with fertility, health and survival, the
breed has experienced a rapid decline in these functional traits.”
Furthermore, he said the level of inbreeding at over 8% in US Holstein females born in early
2019 was ‘unsustainable’, and continues to increase at an annual rate approaching 0.4%.
“This causes inbreeding depression – the opposite effect to hybrid vigour – which silently
steals profit from dairy producers, particularly in traits which are not readily noticeable such
as embryo loss, disease resistance and survival,” he said.
A long-term commitment
Sara Wiklert Petersson, Chief Sales Officer from VikingGenetics, one of the partners in the
ProCROSS programme which is a joint collaboration with Coopex Montbeliarde, praised the
long-term commitment, the stringent oversight of the breeding programme and the ambition
of the study undertaken by the team at the University of Minnesota and the participating
“The study has officially confirmed what dairy farmers using ProCROSS around the world
already knew – that these cattle are easier to manage and cost less to keep for the same
level of performance,” she added.
Stéphane Fitamant, Managing Director for ProCROSS, concurred, and added: “We have
heard the anecdotal evidence and witnessed the performance of the ProCROSS on farms
for many years, but now we have the scientific documentation to back this up.
“Holstein producers frequently ask what breed they should use after they’ve made their first
cross and this research demonstrates that the three breeds in the ProCROSS programme
will maintain the commercial qualities they want and high levels of hybrid vigour, maintained
at 86% in this three-breed programme, in perpetuity.”
Professor Hansen remarked that further benefits were expected to have become apparent if
individual cow feed intakes had been monitored during the 10-year trial and factored into the
He based this assertion on complementary research presented at the ProCROSS Summit 2018, which demonstrated that ProCROSS cows produced 8% more milk solids than the Holstein,
per kilogram of dry matter intake (B N Shonka-Martin et al*).
Outlining further planned research at the University of Minnesota, he said this would
investigate performance of the ProCROSS on a high fibre, low starch ration in comparison
with the Holstein.
Concluding that all other livestock species exploit hybrid vigour in their commercial breeding
programmes, he said: “Dairy cows are the lone exception but that is going to be changing.”