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Selecting cattle for your small farm

Are you interested in milk? Meat? Both?
Find out which breed suits your needs


By Heather Smith Thomas

Idaho

There are so many breeds and crosses of cattle today that it’s hard to know which ones to choose when selecting cattle for a small farm. There are dozens and dozens of beef breeds and composites, and a half dozen major dairy breeds. There are also a number of minor breeds that are often more attractive to the small farmer than they are to the big producer. You may want to raise animals that are bred for beef or dairy, or you might want a dual purpose type of cow that provides enough milk for your family and also a good beef-type calf to butcher. What you select will depend on how much room you have and whether you want to have a small dairy or a beef herd, or just a cow or two to produce your own meat or milk.

Heather's daughter Andrea, and one of her crossbred Angus-Hereford cows, named Norman
Heather’s daughter Andrea, and one of her crossbred Angus-Hereford cows, named Norman

The many breeds and types of cattle have a wide variety of characteristics that make them unique. Some are better suited to certain environments or management systems than others. Some of the older breeds are less popular today and small in number, but this does not make them any less suitable for beef production (or for dairy purposes on a small scale or for a pasture dairy). Under certain conditions, one of these breeds may fit your goals better than a more popular breed. You may want to take a look at some of the minor breeds, or crosses that utilize these breeds, when choosing animals that might best fit your interests, environment, resources, and ability to care for the animals.

Some breeds are very old, such as the Chianina-an Italian breed of huge cattle that goes back 2,000 years or more to the time of the Roman Empire, where they were used as oxen. Others (like Beefmaster, Santa Gertrudis, Brangus, Polled Herefords, Red Angus, Senepol, Hays Converter, etc.) have been created in the past several decades by selecting certain traits within an existing breed and concentrating on those (the red gene in Angus, or the polled mutation in Herefords) or by combining the genetics of older breeds to create a mix that becomes a new breed (like Beefmaster, Senepol, Santa Gertrudis, etc.)

Since there were no cattle in North America when settlers first arrived, they brought the breeds they were familiar with-from the British Isles or Europe. In more recent years cattle from other continents have also been imported, such as zebu cattle (including the Brahman) from India/Africa, the Wagyu from Japan, Watusi from Africa, etc.

The many beef breeds have differences in size (height and body weight), carcass traits (lean or fat), color and markings, hair coat and weather tolerance, and so on. Most cattle are horned and some breeds are polled. Some of the horned breeds have had Angus genetics infused into them in recent years, so the offspring are now polled and black-two traits that have become popular with many stockmen. In some of the traditionally red, horned European breeds like Salers, Gelbvieh, Limousin and Simmental, you can now choose black, polled versions if you wish.

Beef breeds are stockier and more muscled than dairy breeds. The latter have been selected for their milking ability rather than for beef production and the cows are finer boned, more feminine and have larger udders-giving much more milk. Many beef breeds were originally bred for large size and great strength so they could be used as draft animals to pull carts, wagons and plows, as well as for beef. When animals were no longer needed so much for draft purposes (after the invention of farm machinery and trucks), these large, heavy muscled animals were no longer used as oxen and were selectively bred just to create beef.

Many breeds (including Shorthorn, Brown Swiss, Simmental, Gelbvieh, Pinzgauer, Tarentaise) were used early on for milk and meat. Some of these breeds were later split into two registries, with different selected types for either milk or beef, while others are now raised mainly as beef animals. In Europe, for instance, the Simmental is a dual purpose dairy animal whereas in North America the breed has been more selectively bred as just a beef animal. The Shorthorn, on the other hand, has a registry for milking Shorthorns and another registry for beef Shorthorns.

Even though some breeds are similar in color, they are not the same in other traits. If you are familiar with the typical “type” and conformation of certain breeds, you can readily differentiate between a Red Angus and a red Limousin, Gelbvieh or Salers. These breeds have differences in body build, frame size, bone size, etc. Most of the modern, popular beef breeds are larger in size (and wean bigger calves) than some of the more rare and “old fashioned” breeds, but in many instances the latter can serve your purposes on a small farm-requiring less feed and often less care.

Selecting an appropriate breed for your farm

If you want cows that can do well in a pasture dairy (using grass rather than grain) or are interested in producing beef in a natural environment or on a small farm or in a sustainable agriculture system (with minimal inputs), one of the minor breeds may work well for you. This type of production system often demands different qualities than do the intensive confinement systems that are common in modern dairies or beef production. Animals for low-input sustainable production must have the ability to flourish on forages alone, with greater forage efficiency, parasite and disease resistance, hardiness, maternal abilities, good fertility under marginal conditions, and longevity.

Many of these qualities have been ignored or minimized in popular breeds used for maximum production. Selection emphasis in modern breeds has been on fastest gain, higher weaning and yearling weights, or (in the case of dairy cattle) more milk production. Cattle have been bred for these traits, thinking these animals would be most profitable.

Stockmen working toward maximum production overlook the fact that maximum profit may not come from the animal that grows biggest the fastest (or gives the most milk)-if there’s more cost and labor involved. Often the hardier, smaller cow that needs less feed (and continues to produce calves and keep up an adequate milk flow on inexpensive grazing-without purchased feeds or grain and supplements) is more profitable.

She stays in the herd longer, producing a calf every year, making more money even though her calves are smaller or she gives less milk than a traditional dairy cow. She produces more pounds of beef, or more total milk (more cheaply) in her lifetime because she has more total calves and never came up open, or in the case of a milk cow is not “burned out” and culled from the herd at an early age. Dairy cows in pasture situations-not pushed for maximum production-may continue to produce well into their teens, whereas most dairy cows in the big confinement dairies (where they are fed huge amounts of concentrates so they can give more milk) often break down and are sold by the time they are four-to-six years old.

Animals that are hardy, and adaptable to various environments (thriving even in harsh or marginal conditions), are often less expensive to raise because they need less care and are productive without expensive feeds. Thus some of the minor or rare breeds can be more appropriate for sustainable agriculture systems than more common breeds. One of the reasons minor breeds are not as popular is that they do not produce as maximally and are not a good fit for intensive agricultural systems that push for highest performance. But if you want low input beef production, or a minimum labor grass based dairy system, you need a breed whose efficiency of production is more important than maximum production.

Many of the rare and minor breeds are more adaptable in a variety of environments. In a beef operation, some of the lesser known breeds produce outstanding crossbred offspring, due to the great amount of hybrid vigor imparted to their calves. When matching animals to your own environment, you may want to consider raising or crossing one of these less popular breeds. There are many breeds to choose from; the following list is just a sampling.

Minor breeds that do well in cold climates/rough conditions

Some breeds can handle colder weather, wind and marginal forages better than others. In a northern climate (and if cattle will be foraging in rough conditions without pampering), these breeds perform better and stay healthier than cattle from a hotter climate.

Scotch Highland

Originally called the Kayloe, this ancient breed has not changed much since its beginnings in the rugged, Scottish Highlands where it survived on sparse, coarse native forage. These animals have impressive horns and long hair. Most are red, but individuals range in color from tan to black-with an occasional white and dun. As one of the hardiest breeds, they can survive in poor conditions where other cattle perish. First imported to North America in the late 1800s, ranchers on the plains found that during bad winters Highland cattle survived the worse blizzards-and broke trail through snowdrifts, enabling other cattle to make it to feed and water.

Calves are small at birth, but grow rapidly. Mature animals are small compared to most of the popular beef breeds; bulls weigh 1,200 to 1,600 pounds and cows weigh between 900 to 1,300 pounds. Due to their ease of calving, hardiness and dramatic level of hybrid vigor when crossed with other cattle, they are sometimes used in crossbreeding programs to produce efficient, hardy range cattle. Highland and their crosses produce an excellent beef carcass.

Galloway

This rugged breed was developed in southwestern Scotland during the 16th century, an area not much less rugged than the Highlands. Larger than Highland cattle (mature bulls weigh about 2,000 pounds, with cows ranging from 1,200 to 1,400 pounds), the Galloway is polled, black (though a few are red, white or dun) and sturdy, with long shaggy hair that sheds in summer. They handle severe winter weather very well and keep foraging in deep snow when other cattle give up. They are good travelers, with rock-hard hooves. Galloway cattle were brought to Canada in 1853; the first ones in the U.S. were brought to Michigan in 1870. The belted Galloway has the same genetic background but for the past century has been considered a separate breed.

Calves are born small and hardy, and gain rapidly. Steers produce a very trim carcass with a high percentage of meat. Beef breeders in the U.S. during the early 1900s were impressed by the breed’s efficiency and beef quality; agricultural publications of that day predicted a great future for the breed, considering it much superior to the smaller, more fragile Aberdeen Angus.

Minor breeds that do well in temporate climates and lush forage

Some breeds were developed in moderate climates, utilizing lush native pastures or improved pastures-producing maximum amounts of beef efficiently, without grain.

Devon

Devon cattle originated in southwestern England as draft animals and were later selected for beef production traits, producing flavorful meat on native grasses. This is a popular breed in countries like Australia, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa where few feedlots exist and cattle are finished on grass. Sometimes called Ruby Red Devons, these red cattle may be horned or polled. Mature bulls weigh 1,800 to 2,200 pounds, while cows weigh 1,200 to 1,400. Calves are small at birth, weighing 55 to 60 pounds.

Devons were first brought to North America in 1623 by early colonists for meat, milk and draft. They played an important role in early American agriculture and some were used as oxen pulling wagons west on the Oregon Trail. Hardy and adaptable, the Devon thrives in nearly all parts of the U.S. but the breed population in this country today is small.

Red Poll

Deep red in color, these cattle were developed in the 1840s in southern England (crossing two types of polled cattle in Suffolk and Norfolk counties) to utilize good pastureland, and were first imported to the U.S. in 1873. Originally bred as dual purpose (meat and milk), the cows are highly fertile and raise growthy calves. Calves average about 80 pounds at birth but grow fast. Mature bulls weigh about 1,600 and cows average 1,140 pounds.

Since the breed is not closely related to other beef breeds, it can be utilized in a crossbreeding program to impart exceptional hybrid vigor. Throughout its history it’s been used primarily for grass finishing (reaching market weight at a young age) and excels in meat quality (marbling and tenderness) without grain.

Minor breeds that do well in hot climates

Unless cattle are well adapted to hot or humid climates, they suffer heat stress and are not very productive. Breeds that originated in cooler climates (British cattle or most European cattle) do not do well in southern regions of the U.S. that have extreme climate.

American Criollo

Several related breeds in the American Southwest and Gulf States are descended from Spanish cattle brought to North and Central American during the 1500s. The Spanish cattle were a wide range of colors and color patterns. Their descendents are still colorful, and the various breeds that evolved in the harsh climate of the southern U.S. (hot and dry in the Southwest, hot and humid in the Southeast and Gulf states) are hardy, fertile, and able to utilize marginal forages.

Texas Longhorns were the backbone of the early western cattle industry (able to thrive in rugged grazing conditions with no human care) until the imported British breeds supplanted them. Longhorns were not as beefy, and their horns posed a problem with transport to market when stockmen began shipping cattle by rail rather than driving them. The breed nearly disappeared in the early 1900s, but some were protected in a wildlife refuge. Renewed interest in the breed’s hardiness, foraging ability, long life and maternal traits revived it; today its numbers continue to grow.

Florida Cracker, Pineywoods cattle are closely related breeds that came from the same foundation stock as Texas Longhorns, but developed along the Gulf Coast in a much different environment. They are very small in size, with shorter horns than the longhorn, running wild for several hundred years in swamp and scrub lands (heavily wooded lowland areas). They are resistant to extremes of heat/humidity, insect parasites and disease and thrive on poor forage, producing calves until their late teens and early 1920s. Though cows are small, they produce excellent calves when crossed with other breeds. They nearly disappeared as a breed by the mid 1950s, due to crossing with Brahman, Hereford and Angus, and would have become extinct except for preservation efforts by a few farm families. In 1989 the Florida Cracker Cattle Breeders Association was formed to promote and preserve the breed and 400 animals were registered as foundation animals.

Senepol

This polled red breed was developed in the early 1900s on the Virgin Islands (St. Croix) by crossing N’Dama cows from Senegal and Red Poll bulls from England-to create cattle that could do well in hot and dry or hot and humid climates. The N’Dama originated in West Africa, descending from humpless longhorn cattle of Egypt. The N’Dama is compact and well muscled, with light bones. The crossbred Senepol utilized very poor sub-tropical grazing conditions, thriving on whatever vegetation was available. These cattle (and their crosses with other breeds) are well suited to hot climates and low input beef production. They add heat tolerance to any cross, without sacrificing carcass quality, and hybrid vigor is greater than most other Bos Taurus combinations. Stockmen like their ease of handling, which makes them attractive to small farmers. Moderate sized (cows 1,100 to 1,200 pounds, bulls 1,600 to 1,800 pounds), they are early maturing and very fertile.

Senepol was recognized as a breed in 1948. A registry and herd book was established in 1976. Parent breeds are noted for easy calving. Red Poll contributed gentle disposition, fertility and maternal traits, along with excellent carcass quality. The N’Dama contributed heat tolerance and parasite resistance, making Senepol the only heat-tolerant Bos Taurus breed. Studies at Subtropical Agricultural Research Station in Florida showed that Senepol cattle cope with heat slightly better than Brahmans, and other studies show that Senepol graze for longer periods of time during hot days than Herefords (doing better in hot weather).

Ankole-Watusi

These medium-sized cattle have long, large diameter horns, a straight topline and sloping rump-and are solid colored or spotted. Some have a neck hump. Bulls weigh 1,000 to 1,600 pounds and cows 900 to 1,200 pounds. Calves are very small at birth (30 to 50 pounds) but grow fast because the cow’s milk is about 10 percent butterfat. The breed is heat tolerant, and their large horns serve as radiators to help dissipate body heat; blood circulating through the horns is cooled before returning to the body. The cattle handle weather extremes well, having developed in a climate where temperature may range from 20 to 120ºF.

A Galloway cow and calf
A Galloway cow and calf

These cattle trace their African ancestry back more than 6,000 years. Forerunners of the breed were long-horned humpless cattle raised by Egyptian farmers in the Nile Valley, eventually spreading to Ethopia and southern parts of Africa. About 4,000 years ago the humped Zebu cattle from Pakistan and India reached Africa (with human migrations, taking livestock with them). After Zebu cattle arrived in what is now Ethiopia and Somalia they were crossed with the Egyptian Longhorn to produce the Sanga, which then spread to eastern Africa to become the base of many African breeds. The Sanga had most of the typical Zebu traits (neck hump, upturned horns, pendulous dewlap and sheath) but their modern descendents vary in size, conformation and horn size/shape due to selective breeding by different tribes. In early times the Ankole-Watusi were considered sacred by many tribes-providing milk but rarely used for meat, since wealth was measured in number of cattle.

Ankole cattle were brought to European and British zoos and game parks from Africa in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and to America from European zoos in the 1920s and 30s and later became available for sale to private individuals. In 1983 a registry was created; some people use these cattle for roping, and some for meat production (due to breed traits of low fat and low cholesterol).

Other minor breeds that appeal to small farmers

Some breeds are selected for their dual purpose characteristics (meat and milk) or ease of handling, or ability to thrive in marginal conditions.

Dexter

These small cattle originated in southern Ireland in the 1800s, bred by farmers with small holdings in the mountains. The cattle foraged in rough country adjacent to the little farms and though they roamed freely they were known as the Irish House Cow. The breed may have begun by crossing the Kerry (small, fine-boned dairy breed descended from the Celtic Shorthorn, brought to Ireland 4,000 years ago) with another breed, perhaps the Devon. The first Dexters imported to America were not recorded; no distinction was made in those days between Dexters and Kerrys. The first recorded Dexters were imported in 1905.

Today the breed is few in number but there is growing interest in these small, gentle cattle since they need less feed than other breeds and thrive in a variety of climates. Mature cows weigh less than 750 pounds; bulls weigh less than 1,000 pounds. There are two varieties–the short-legged beef type and the long-legged Kerry type, but both can appear in the same herd, from the same matings, and both have good milk and beef production. Most are black, but some are red, and all have horns. Cows give more milk for their body weight than any other breed (including high producing dairy cows). Calves are born easily and grow fast, maturing by 12 to 18 months of age as finished beef.

Welsh Black

This breed originated along the coast of Wales and has an excellent disposition; they were historically raised and tended by women. Harsh weather and poor grazing honed the breed’s ability to get by on minimal forage and they handle cold weather better than most breeds. They were first brought to the U.S. in 1966. Originally bred for milk and meat, the cows raise fast-growing calves. Mature cows weigh 1,000 to 1,300 pounds; bulls weigh 1,800 to 2,000 pounds. Cows are fertile and long-lived. The cattle are horned, but many U.S. breeders select for polled individuals.

Normande

This colorful French breed harks back to cattle brought to Normandy by Viking conquerors in the 9th and 10th centuries, evolving into a dual purpose breed. Some went to South America in the 1890s, where there are now four million purebreds (and countless crossbreds). They are adaptable and hardy, doing well in the Andes Mountains at elevations up to 13,000 feet, traveling long distances over rough terrain to utilize native forages. Carcasses have high muscle to bone ratio and lean meat that marbles readily. Cows weigh 1,200 to 1,500; bulls weigh 2,000 to 2,400 pounds. They have long, deep bodies and wide ribcages, and perform well on a high roughage diet. Calves are born easily and grow fast, and finishing beef animals have rapid gain on roughage alone, with no grain.

Dutch Belted

This breed traces back to belted cattle from mountain farms in Switzerland and Austria, highly prized for their milking and fattening ability. Some of the first imports to the U.S. were by P.T. Barnum in 1840 for his circus. These cattle flourished in the U.S. as a dairy breed until about 1940, but are now listed as critically rare by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. They are attracting interest from farmers who utilize grass based beef and dairy programs, however, because of their easy calving, exceptional longevity and fertility, high meat yield and friendly disposition.

Murray Grey cow and calf
Murray Grey cow and calf

Traditional breeds can also work well, if you select wisely

Sometimes it’s easier to find cattle from more popular, traditional breeds, since you can probably buy them locally without having to look so far or travel a long ways to find, buy and bring them home. Look around your local region, talk to other small farmers, find out what types of cattle they are raising and what seems to work best for them. You may be able to select cattle from someone you know, who has a few to sell. Cattle that are adapted to your climate and conditions are often the best way to go, when you are just getting started. If you have a favorite breed, choose some good individuals from that breed-from a local, reputable stockman.

You don’t need a purebred (unless you are specifically interested in raising purebreds) nor even a herd of just one breed. Oftentimes a crossbred or composite animal is the best fit for a small farm because it combines the best traits of more than one breed and has the added advantage of hybrid vigor: more hardiness, better fertility, longevity, and increased production under more marginal conditions. Crossbreds or composites are often the most profitable cattle.

The individual traits of a given animal are also more important than what breed it is. There are outstanding animals and some poor ones, in every breed. Even if a certain breed is well known for feed efficiency and fertility or for sound udders, or “good disposition,” for instance, you still need to be selective; don’t buy any animal sight unseen. There are usually some individuals in every breed that don’t live up to the breed standard and they will disappoint you. Carefully evaluate any animal before you buy it. If you are unsure about some of the finer points of bovine conformation or what makes a good cow, have a friend (whose knowledge of cattle you trust) help you pick out the ones you buy.


Next month: Malpresentation of calves during birth.





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