A Field Guide to Heritage Cattle

Read the following and you soon may have a cow – and a hand in keeping livestock history alive.

| July/August 2007

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

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.

4/19/2015 1:44:16 PM

what is the best cattle for a small farm of 11 acres. I want to graze farm. Do the Heritage Cattle have grants to start this type farm? What are the benefits to having a heritage farm?

3/11/2013 10:05:19 PM

Also have Dexters, a Highland heifer and a couple of heifer Kingshires (lowline mix between Herford, Dexter and Angus). We just tested our bull for the gene and no problem. Also we have bred our bull to the Kingshires and our Highland for very adorable and hardy babies---especially with the Highland. Found that these animals are calm, hardy and curious. Great on the land and will eat many things I had read cattle won't eat (heads off thistles).

6/19/2009 11:40:33 PM

We have Dexters. They are a wonderful little cow that is perfect for the small holding and the beginner. However, I must object to the way you say that the dwarf gene hasn't been 100% bred out. Sure there can be a problem if two carriers are bred. To avoid this know if the animals you intend to breed are carriers or not, and don't breed to another carrier unless you have to or you really want the blood line. Not everyone wants to breed the gene out totally. It is good to know if your animal is a carrier, but just because an animal is a carrier doesn't mean it's not just as good as the non carrier animals.

mother earth news fair 2018 schedule


Next: August 4-5, 2018
Albany, OR

Sit in on dozens of practical workshops from the leading authorities on modern homesteading, animal husbandry, gardening, real food and more!


Live The Good Life with GRIT!

Grit JulAug 2016At GRIT, we have a tradition of respecting the land that sustains rural America. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing to GRIT through our automatic renewal savings plan. By paying now with a credit card, you save an additional $6 and get 6 issues of GRIT for only $16.95 (USA only).

Or, Bill Me Later and send me one year of GRIT for just $22.95!

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter

Free Product Information Classifieds

Copyright 2018, All Rights Reserved
Ogden Publications, Inc., 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, Kansas 66609-1265