Heritage Cattle Breeds for the Small Farm
Many of the historic Heritage Cattle breeds offer characteristics perfect for small farms and sustainable agriculture.
Historically, in the United Kingdom, Ancient White Park cattle were used in rituals.
courtesy American Livestock Breeds Conservancy
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
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.
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.
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