Heritage Cattle Breeds for the Small Farm

Many of the historic Heritage Cattle breeds offer characteristics perfect for small farms and sustainable agriculture.
Jennifer Kendall
March/April 2011
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Historically, in the United Kingdom, Ancient White Park cattle were used in rituals.
courtesy American Livestock Breeds Conservancy
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MOO-ve over Holstein and Angus, a few new cattle breeds are in town. Actually, they are not new breeds at all, but old breeds that are once again gaining favor on small farms and in sustainable production systems. These cattle breeds, known collectively as Heritage Cattle, have been a part of the American agricultural landscape since the arrival of Spanish colonists beginning in 1493. For centuries, these breeds have provided milk, meat, leather, tallow, draft power and companionship.

Today, many of these historic breeds are faced with extinction, but they are fighting to stay current. By finding niche markets for their products, these early American breeds just might have a chance to survive and thrive. Let’s meet some of the original cattle that were crucial to the success of American agriculture.

Ancient White Park
Status: Threatened

Rooted in the midst of antiquity, horned white cattle have been documented in England since the 13th century. In the centuries that followed, they spread throughout England, Scotland and Wales. Eventually some feral cattle herds were enclosed in deer parks, and as their wild habitats were destroyed, the only Ancient White Park cattle remaining were in these “parks.” During World War II, the British evacuated many Ancient White Park cattle to the Bronx Zoo for safekeeping. The cattle were eventually transported to the King Ranch in Texas, where they were kept as a closed herd for more than 40 years. Today, there are a few U.S. breeders raising this ancient breed.

Ancient White Park cows can weigh from 1,200 to 1,800 pounds, and bulls can reach 1,800 to 2,000 pounds. The cattle are white with black (or red) eye rings, ears, nose, feet and teats. Some animals have small speckles of white or blue on their coats. The breed has light-colored horns with a black tip. The breed is noted for its high fertility, easy calving, hardiness, adaptability and grazing ability. U.S. breeders are working to develop a market for the rich, tender Ancient White Park beef. Novices should note that the Ancient White Park is probably not the best choice for beginners.

Highland
Status: Recovering

Straight out of Scotland, the shaggy-haired, long-horned Highland cattle are often associated with the history, beauty and culture of the Scottish Highlands. The breed was heavily influenced by natural selection due to its isolation in the cold, wet climate and rough forage of Northern Scotland. The cattle developed traits such as cold-hardiness, longevity, vigor and reproductive efficiency. Beginning in the 1880s, this Scottish treasure was imported to North America. The breed was incorporated into small farms in Canada and the northern United States where it thrived on the rigors of pasture-based production.

Highland cattle are medium in size, with cows weighing 900 to 1,300 pounds and bulls 1,500 to 2,000 pounds. While light red is the most common color found in the breed, the double-hair coat can also be seen in black, cream, brindle, dun, and red and white. Today, the breed is known for the excellent quality of its richly flavored beef. The breed’s ability to consume a variety of pest plants and grasses makes it a great option as a land-management tool for improving pastures and controlling overgrowth. Its grazing abilities also make it an ideal fit for those wanting to produce grassfed beef. Due to its majestic beauty and the growing market for grassfed beef, the Highland’s breed numbers are on the rise.

Florida Cracker
Status: Critical

Descending from Spanish cattle brought to the New World more than 500 years ago, Florida Cracker cattle have history on their side. As the Spanish settled Florida and areas of the Deep South, they established extensive cattle ranging systems. The cattle adapted to the regional terrain and local forage, creating a breed that is heat
tolerant, long-lived, parasite resistant and productive on marginal forage. The term “cracker” in the breed’s name is reminiscent of the sound a whip makes when “cracked.” It’s thought that early cattlemen used whips to herd and move the cattle. Florida Cracker cattle would have been commonplace on small farms and homesteads, serving multiple purposes.

Florida Cracker cattle are small, with cows weighing 600 to 800 pounds and bulls 800 to 1,200 pounds. Their small size is likely reflective of the marginal forage and harsh conditions to which they’ve adapted. The breed can be found in a wide variety of colors, including (but not limited to) solid red, dun, brindle, roan and white. The cattle are typically horned with horn shapes varying from small and twisted to short and crumpled. Some polled animals exist. Today, the breed is critically endangered, with many “old-timers” maintaining the traditional lines.

Red Poll
Status: Threatened

The Red Poll is a dual-purpose cattle breed developed in the early 1800s in England. Red Polls enjoyed great popularity in England. Beginning in the late 1870s and continuing through the 1930s, their popularity spread as these quiet red cattle were imported to the United States. They were valued as efficient and competitive dairy cows, often producing 10,000 pounds of milk per year. During the 1960s, the Holstein breed began to dominate the dairy industry, causing American Red Poll breeders to select for beef characteristics to develop a niche market. Today, the Red Poll is renowned for its tender, well-marbled beef, though some herds still are selected for dairy qualities.

Red Poll cattle are considered medium in size, with cows averaging 1,200 pounds and bulls 1,800 pounds. As their name suggests, the cattle are solid red, though some white on the underside is tolerated. Red Polls are noted for their even temperaments and delightful dispositions. They are adaptable, long-lived and make great mothers. The Red Poll breed is an excellent option for those interested in grassfed beef production, as they are highly efficient grazers. Cows can be used for home dairy and small-scale dairy production. The milk is high in protein and butterfat. The Red Poll has an uncertain future, but its many positive characteristics and great beef qualities are creating a resurgent interest in the breed.

Guernsey
Status: Watch

The Guernsey is a dairy breed originally from the Isle of Guernsey in the Channel Islands. According to the Norman Chronicles, monks were sent to Guernsey by the Duke of Normandy in about A.D. 960, and they brought cattle with them. A distinctive feature of the breed is the golden color of its milk, resulting from high levels of carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A. Butter made from Guernsey milk also is distinctively golden.

Guernseys are medium to large, with cows weighing 1,400 pounds and bulls 2,000 pounds. Guernsey cattle range in color from fawn to golden with white spotting and golden skin. The breed is typically horned, though polled strains have been developed. Cows are noted for their quiet dispositions and as good grazers, and they can produce rich milk on a grassfed diet. Between 1970 and 1990, annual registrations for the Guernsey breed dropped by 60 percent. The modern milk industry favors quantity over quality, which explains the Guernsey’s fall in popularity. The breed would make a great addition to a small farm or homestead interested in grass-based dairying or developing niche dairy products using heritage cattle. 

Carolina born and raised, Jennifer Kendall resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband, Bassett Hound and Orange Tabby, and dreams of one day owning some of these heritage breeds.   

About ALBC

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is a nonprofit membership organization working to protect more than 170 breeds of livestock and poultry from extinction. Founded in 1977, ALBC is the pioneer organization in the United States working to conserve historic breeds and genetic diversity in livestock. ALBC’s mission is to ensure the future of agriculture through genetic conservation and the promotion of endangered breeds of livestock and poultry. 

Membership in the organization is $35 per year. For more information or to join, call 919-542-5704 or visit the website www.ALBC-USA.org.


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