cows in field

Crossbreeding? Consider Norwegian Reds

Norwegian Red x Holstein dam on right. Backcross daughter (3/4 Holstein x ¼ Norwegian Red) on left.

Crossbreeding? Consider Norwegian Reds

By Dr. Gary W. Rogers and Joan Cooper, M.S., Geno Global

Background on Norwegian Red

Added June 9, 2014. Norwegian Red is the primary dairy breed in Norway – a country that has over 210,000 Norwegian Reds distributed in over 10,000 herds. By contrast Norway has only about 3000 Holsteins and less than 750 Jerseys. Many non-Holstein breeds (including polled breeds) contributed to the early development of the Norwegian Red, but in general the Norwegian Red is an Ayrshire-based population. The North American Ayrshires are not closely related to the Norwegian Red, though there is a genetic link with the Swedish Red and the Finnish Ayrshire as a limited number of sires from these breeds have been shared over the past 60-70 years.

The Norwegian Red has been heavily selected for health, fertility and production using a well-designed breeding program for almost 40 years. The Swedish Red has a similar breeding history and more recently the Finnish Ayrshire population adopted a similar breeding goal. The Norwegian Red breed is one of the healthiest, most hardy and most robust of all high producing dairy breeds in the world. Norway has the largest population of Ayrshire-based cows and has had the largest progeny test program for Ayrshire-based cattle of any country in the world.

Norwegian Red cattle are moderate in size with mature cow weights around 1300 pounds and calves are hardy and fast growing. Top producing herds in Norway average well over 25,000 pounds of milk per year. Fat percentage averages 4.2% and protein percentage averages 3.4% so fat and protein production are outstanding, especially given the moderate cow size.
Norwegian Reds have an extremely low frequency of important health problems. Clinical mastitis incidence and metabolic disease incidence are very low compared to most dairy populations. Calving difficulty (2%) and stillbirths (3%) are also very low in Norway. Norwegian Reds have remarkable fertility with an average calving interval under 12.5 months, 1st service conception rate in lactating cows over 60% and maiden heifer conception rates more than 70%.

Norwegian Red has a high frequency of the polled gene (absence of horns). Frequency of polled is about 50% today across all of Norway. Systematic selection of polled animals has increased the frequency of polled animals over the past 50 years and will continue until all animals are polled.


Breeding program

The aim of the breeding program is to simultaneously improve production traits as well as health, fertility and other traits that are important for ease of management and lowered cost of production. Milk component production, resistance to mastitis, resistance to other diseases, fertility and udder characteristics have been heavily emphasized.

The Norwegian Red breeding program has progeny tested approximately 125 young bulls yearly for several decades. About 10 to 12 of the highest ranking bulls (for TMI) are selected from these 125 each year for use in the general population. The progeny-tested bulls receive very accurate genetic evaluations even for the lowly heritable traits like health and fertility because we get 250 daughters or more in their first daughter-based genetic evaluations.

Crossbreeding with Norwegian Red in the US.

Use of Norwegian Red sires has increased dramatically in the US over the past few years. Norwegian Red sires have been used for crossbreeding with US breeds since there are no purebred Norwegian Reds in the US - - they are mainly used on Holsteins and on Jersey x Holstein crosses. ABS Global is the exclusive distributor of Norwegian Red sires in the US and Canada.

We now know how well the Norwegian Red crosses are performing. We can also compare Norwegian Red crosses with current Holstein sires for many traits that are critical to organic dairy producers. In the US we are fortunate to have a multi-breed genetic evaluation so bull proofs are easy to convert from one breed base to another breed base. We can account for the heterosis (or hybrid vigor - especially important in lowly heritable traits like fertility) and convert proofs for Norwegian Red sires to the US Holstein base, thereby “comparing apples to apples.” Historically, Norwegian Red sires are extremely impressive on the US Holstein base with unparalleled records for daughter pregnancy rate (US measure of cow fertility). Also impressive is the fact that Norwegian Reds have fat and protein production similar to Holstein sires used during the same time period.

We can use the official USDA-CDCB/Interbull Predicted Transmitting Abilities (PTA)1 from the April 2014 US sire summary for 15 Norwegian Red sires currently being marketed in the US to illustrate the performance of Norwegian Red sires compared to the US Holstein base (Table 1). In addition the heterosis from crossing calculated by USDA-CDCB has been added to the PTAs which assumes that the NRF sires will be used for crossbreeding.

Averages for active AI Holstein sires, active AI Jersey sires (PTAs converted to the Holstein base plus heterosis) and the 15 Norwegian Red sires currently available in the US are presented in Table 1 (page 22). In addition, comparisons are made between the top sires for each breed - - 5 top daughter-proven Holstein sires based on Lifetime Net Merit, the top 5 daughter-proven Jersey sires based on Lifetime Net Merit and the top 5 Norwegian Red sires. Data reflect how crosses from Norwegian Red sires and from Jersey sires would be expected to perform compared with pure Holsteins.

Productive life (PL) is not included in the comparison in Table 1 because Norwegian Red sires have PL proofs in the US with very low accuracy. Proofs for PL for Norwegian Red sires are very impressive but may not be realistic. It will require more years of data on Norwegian Red daughters in the US before PL evaluations for Norwegian Red sires will have high reliability.
Table 1 (on page 22) shows that crossbred daughters of Norwegian Red sires will produce fat yields that are equal to those you expect from Holstein cows. In addition, crossbred daughters of Norwegian Red bulls will likely produce slightly more protein yield than either Holsteins or Jersey crosses. However, where the Norwegian Red sires shine is in the area of daughter fertility. Crossbred daughters of Norwegian Red sires will be the most fertile of all breeds used in the US to date. These Norwegian Red daughters will have 20 to 25 fewer days open than Holsteins depending on which Norwegian Red sires are used.

The bottom line is that crossbred daughters of Norwegian Red sires available in the US today will likely be more profitable and easier to manage than purebreds in organic dairy herds. Organic dairy producers who want moderate-sized cows with extremely high fertility, excellent health and outstanding production will be pleased with daughters of Norwegian Red sires. In addition, many Norwegian Red sires are polled and 2 currently available Norwegian Red sires are homozygous polled (all offspring will be polled).

1 Predicted Transmitting Ability, or PTA, is an estimate of the average genetic superiority (or inferiority) that a bull (or cow) will transmit to its offspring for a given trait. PTAs are adjusted to a reference population of animals called the genetic base. Each breed has its own base and the U.S. “upgrades” the genetic base for each breed every 5 years. Currently the U.S. base is the average PTA of cows born in 2005. The average PTA of these cows is then set to zero. For example, a sire with a PTA of +1000 lbs. of milk, +50 lbs. of fat, and +45 lbs. of protein is expected to have daughters that yield on average 1000 lbs. more milk, 50 lbs. more fat, and 45 lbs. more protein than a daughter of an average cow born in 2005. As the reliability (%R) for a PTA increases, one can be more confident in the estimate of a PTA. When looking at PTAs, focus on the difference between bulls and reliabilities of PTAs.

Dr. Gary Rogers was raised on a Holstein farm in eastern Tennessee and served the dairy industry as a professor of dairy science for 20 years. He served for a total of 10 years at the Journal of Dairy Science, of which he was Editor-in-Chief for 5 of those years, and became the Global Technical Advisor for Geno Global in 2008.

Joan Cooper, M.S. has supported dairy extension and research professionals since 1988. She is currently a data analyst and support specialist for Geno Global.