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Les Hansen

According to U professor Les Hansen, crossbreeding could help solve the dairy industry's reproductive and health problems.

Building a better Holstein

U professor advocates crossbreeding

By Becky Beyers

From eNews, February 21, 2008

Look around Les Hansen's office and you'll see cows, lots of cows.

Most of the bovine statues and knickknacks are black and white, like the purebred Holsteins that Hansen, an animal science professor at the University of Minneosta, grew up with and studies to this day. But right next to his computer is a big reddish-brown cow--a symbolic reminder of where Hansen thinks the dairy industry is headed.

Holstein producers take great pride in their breed; Holsteins produce high-quality milk and lots of it, and purists say crossbreeding could put that superior productivity at risk. But over the last 50 years, Holsteins have gotten bigger--sometimes too big to comfortably fit in a stall--and have more trouble conceiving and giving birth to healthy calves.

The main culprit, according to Hansen, is inbreeding. Holsteins are bred via artificial insemination, most often using semen from just a handful of bulls. Some studies show that about 30 percent of the current international Holstein gene pool can be traced back to just two bulls.

That's where crossbreeding comes in. Hansen and others in the Department of Animal Science have gotten international attention for their work with seven California dairy producers, who, in 2002, began artificially mating their Holstein heifers and cows with the Normande and Montbeliarde breeds from France, as well as the Norwegian Red and Swedish Red breeds.

The results convinced Hansen that crossbreeding could help solve the dairy industry's reproductive and health problems. That's controversial in an industry where only 1 percent of U.S. dairy cattle have been crossbred, but it's made Hansen a popular speaker worldwide.

While some of his audiences may not agree with his views, Hansen says his real-world experience helps build his case. "I grew up with Holsteins and on collegiate judging teams. I'm not some ivory-tower geneticist who's unfamiliar with on-farm concerns."