NMSU: Color Patterns of Crossbred Beef
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Author: Department Head and Range Management Specialist, Department of Extension Animal Sciences and Natural Resources, New Mexico State University.

Most breeds of beef cattle have a fixed color pattern that is characteristic for that breed because of previous selection. For example, all Hereford cattle have a red body color with a white face, all Charolais are white, and all Red Poll are red. However, some other breeds may have more than one basic body color, such as red or black Angus, and white, red, or roan Shorthorn. Still other breeds have multiple colors that are unpredictable; for example, spotting, brindling, or solid colors in Longhorn.

A knowledge of the genetic aspects of hair color and experience allow one to predict, with some degree of accuracy, the color pattern to expect among calves resulting from crossbreeding. This fact sheet is to serve only as a guide. The predictions listed here give only the major expected colors. There will be some exceptions because of gene segregation.

Several of the available cattle breeds are categorized by basic body color in Table 1. These breeds are identified with the color pattern that is most common in each breed. For example, some Simmental cattle have color markings similar to those of Herefords; however, the majority have extra white that is non-predictable in terms of pattern. Thus, Simmental are categorized as spotted cattle.

Table 2 illustrates the color pattern expected in progeny resulting from the matings of bulls and cows of various colors.

Table 1. Basic Body Colors of Cattle and the Breeds Identified with Those Colors

Black Red White or Cream Light Hair Color with Dark Pigment Skins Spotted Mixed Colors
Angus Barzona Shorthorn Brahman Beef Friesian Beefmaster
Brangus Devon Charolais Brown Swiss Hays Converter Braford
Ankina Gelbveih White Park Chianina Holstein Longhorn
Galloway Hereford Blonde'd Marchigiana Maine Anjou  
Welch Black Polled Hereford Aquitaine Murray Grey Normande  
  Limousin   Romagnola MRI  
  Lincoln Red   Jersey Pinzgauer  
  Norwegian Red   Tarentaise Simmental  
  Red Angus        
  Red Poll        
  Santa Gertrudis        
  Scotch Highland        
  South Devon        

Table 2. Expected Color Patterns when Crossing Breeds of Various Colors

  Black Red White Light Hair with Dark Skin Spotted Mixed Colors
Black Black Black Black-smoky Black—some brindling Black—few spots Mostly black
Red   Red Red-roan Red—some brindling Red or black— some spots Some red— mostly mixed
White     White White-grey Mostly spotted— some white Mixed
Light Hair with Dark Skin       Grey Grey— some spotted Mixed
Spotted         Spotted Mixed
No Fixed Color           Mixed

Certainly, one of the strongest arguments for crossbreeding is the use of the crossbred cow. It has been illustrated many times that the average crossbred cow is more productive than the average straightbred cow. However, as we increase the number of breeds involved in crosses, we decrease our ability to maintain complete color control in the offspring. Table 3 illustrates the expected color pattern in offspring from the three-way crossbreds utilizing the F1 cow and straightbred bulls.

Table 3. Expected Offspring Color Patterns (From a Three-Way Cross Using the F1 Cow)

F1 Cows Bulls
Black Red White Spot Mixed
Black X Black Black Black Mostly black Mostly black Mostly black
           x Red Black Black & red Black & red Variable Mixed
           x White Black Black & red Black-smokey Black-mixed Mixed
           x Spot Black Black & red & spots Black-mixed Black & spots Mixed
           x Mixed Black Black & mixed Black-mixed Mixed Mixed
Red X White Black Mostly red Mixed Mixed Mixed
        x Spot Mostly black Mostly red Mixed Mostly spots Mixed
        x Mixed Mostly black Mostly red Mixed Mixed Mixed
White X White Diluted black Red-roan White Spots-white Mixed
           x Spot Mostly black Red-spot White-spot Spots-mixed Mixed
           x Mixed Mostly black Mixed Mixed Mixed Mixed
Spot X Spot Spots—mostly black Red-spot Spot Spot Mixed
         x Mixed Spots—mostly black Spot-mixed Spot Spot Mixed
Mixed X Mixed Brindling—mostly black Mixed Mixed Mixed Mixed

On central markets, cattle are frequently sold with little, if any, information made available about breed or performance. Most buyers will estimate performance (gain, yield, liveability, etc.) in relation to the reputation of the breed; thus, they look for signs that indicate a certain breed or breeds making up crossbred cattle. Some breeds are prone to produce calves that have certain distinct color markings, such as white-face, droopy ears, brindling, skunk-backs, and white stocking legs. Table 4 lists certain breeds that, when crossed with other breeds, frequently produce calves with distinct characteristics. Not all calves carrying this breed make-up will possess these characteristics, but many will have them.

Table 4. Breeds that Commonly Leave Specific Color Markings Suggesting Their Presence in Crossbred Calves

White-Face Brindling Skunk-Backs Stocking Legs Droopy Ear and Navel
Hereford Jersey Charolais Holstein Brahman
Polled Hereford Brown Swiss Pinzgauer Beef Friesian Brangus
Simmental Brahman Maine Anjou Santa Gertrudis  
Chianina   Simmental Braford  
Tarentaise   Hays Converter    
Longhorn   Hereford    
    Polled Hereford    

Because of gene segregation, there are nearly always exceptions to the rule. Table 5 gives some generalizations to consider when attempting to set up a breeding program in which color is important. Producers who are unconcerned with color should select superior breeding stock from breeds that excel in economically important traits and blend those breeds together into a breeding program to allow maximum profit.

Table 5. Generalizations to Remember if Trying to Create a Certain Color Pattern

Things to do:

1. Want to create a black baldy?
a. Infusion of Hereford will put white or brockle face on essentially any color of cow.
b. Infusion of Simmental will put striped or blazed face on solid colored cows but white face on white faced cows (i.e., Hereford or baldy cows).
c. Black is dominant to red color in cattle. Thus, the first cross between black and red will produce essentially all black (depends upon frequency of black cows to bulls that are red carriers) calves. If the second cross is to a red bull, the color of calves will be 1/2 black:1/2 red; but if a black bull, then the calves will again be essentially all black.
d. Breed examples
          Angus      ×        Hereford                Black baldy calf
          Brangus             Simmental

2. Only want one body color from three-breed cross program?
a. If red is desired, producer must use only red breeds.
b. If black is desired, producer must use only black breeds.
c. A mixture of red and black breeds will produce black offspring the first cross but a mixture of red and black (close to 50-50) in second and third crosses.

3. Color not important?
a. Use any breed, just concentrate on blending breeds for production traits such as milk production, fertility, growth, etc.

The opportunity to combine desirable characteristics of two or more breeds (breed complementarity) and increase performance due to hybrid vigor (heterosis) makes crossbreeding a very important mating system for commercial cow herds. Experimental evidence strongly indicates total pounds of calf produced per cow in the breeding herd can be increased 15 to 25 percent in well defined and executed crossbreeding schemes.

This guide provides information about setting up crossbreeding systems that should, in addition to capitalizing on breed complementarity and hybrid vigor, maintain a uniform color pattern for ease of selling the offspring. Color is a highly heritable trait, so it can be selected for or against. In some breeds and breed crosses, the color is highly predictable; however, in other breeds and breed crosses, color is highly unpredictable. For producers who market cattle in groups, color can be an economically important trait.

Published originally as Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service Fact Sheet F-3154, Color Patterns in Crossbred Beef, by John Evans.

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Reprinted and electronically distributed June 2009, Las Cruces, NM.