A Field Guide to Heritage Cattle
Read the following and you soon may have a cow – and a hand in keeping livestock history alive.
Courtesy Anderson Hill Farm, www.AndersonHill.com
The small diversified farms of yesteryear are long gone in North America. Economies of scale, ever-increasing production costs and current conventional wisdom would have virtually every farm on the continent producing the same handful of crops – most without livestock of any kind. Operations where cattle still contribute to the bottom line are now limited to a small fraction of the many score of breeds once raised in this country.
The industrialization of agriculture has definitely kept down the price of food, but with an unexpected consequence: the extinction of many breeds of livestock. In the United States today, 83 percent of all dairy cattle are Holsteins, and 60 percent of beef cattle are of the Angus, Hereford or Simmental breeds. It’s estimated that 190 livestock breeds have become extinct in the past 15 years alone, and 1,500 more are at risk.
A “heritage” livestock breed is one that was raised in the not so distant past. These are the breeds that don’t fit our generalized modern production standards even though most are well-adapted to regional environments where they often outperform their conventional counterparts. Heritage breeds are profoundly important as a pool of genetic diversity. Because of their often quirky characteristics, downright good looks and uniformly self-sufficient nature, heritage cattle are often perfectly suited to acreage owners, small-scale operators and others who just want to keep a tighter rein on their own food supply.
In the entries that follow, we have compiled the key characteristics and some anecdotal information on 18 better-known breeds that fall far from the mainstream. If your favorite breed wasn’t included, please send us a photo along with some pertinent information on the breed, and we’ll try to get them into a future issue. Click on the breed name for a photograph and more information on each breed.
You might find our descriptions of these breeds’ size somewhat arbitrary. In general, adult animals weighing less than 900 pounds are small, 900 to 1,300 pounds medium, and above 1,400 pounds large. We typically based the size rating on cow weights. Bulls should be expected to weigh at least 25 percent more than cows. Exceptions are plentiful, so please just use our values as a guideline. With regard to temperature range, most heritage breeds are adaptable, but some cope with extremes better than others. We labeled the climate for all animals temperate unless they do particularly well in the heat or the cold. Horn size qualifiers were based on subjective observation and anecdotal information.
Ancient White Park cattle were raised in North America primarily to preserve their history and genetics. In support of that effort, the B Bar Ranch also has discovered that the largely self-sufficient animals produce some of the most flavorful, fine-grained and tender grass-finished beef available. Breeding stock for these unique cattle will be very difficult to obtain for the next three years. This ancient breed was once a popular ornament used often to decorate English country estates.
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