One of the unsung heroes of heritage livestock farming is Norris Albaugh. He has dedicated his life to bringing back an important historic cattle breed — the Native Milking Shorthorn. I had the great pleasure of meeting Norris in 2011 in my role as senior program manager for The Livestock Conservancy. Norris’ passion to produce high-quality Shorthorns that are robust and most importantly, profitable, helped change my outlook on cattle breeding.
Establishing Breed Standards
The Milking Shorthorn breed was first developed in the 1700s in the county of Durham in northeastern England. These cattle are fairly large, with bulls weighing 2,000 pounds or more, and cows averaging from 1,200 to 1,500 pounds. These fast growing animals are dual-purpose, for either milk or beef. They can be solid white, or red, or any combination of the two. Because of their easygoing temperament, Milking Shorthorns make excellent oxen, even for beginners.
Despite its popularity in the past, the genetically true Milking Shorthorn breed is currently listed as critically endangered by The Livestock Conservancy. The decline of the historic purebred Shorthorn began in the 1950s. The Shorthorn herdbook — the breed registry — was opened at that time, making it possible for many purebreds to be crossed with other breeds for “improvement.” This created the modern Beef Shorthorn that’s popular among Midwestern ranchers. These animals are no longer the true genetic Milking Shorthorn and are more specialized for beef production, rather than being dual-purpose.
Thankfully, there were dedicated farmers who refused to cross their beloved Shorthorns, and they continued to keep purebred lines. These animals and their descendants are managed by the American Milking Shorthorn Society. They’re designated separately from the Beef Shorthorns by having the word “Native” on their registration to identify them as the original, uncrossed, dual-purpose cattle breed.
The Famous “Durham Ox”
The famous “Durham Ox” (also called the “Durham Bull”) helped to solidify the Native Milking Shorthorn as a British icon. The massive ox was born in 1796 and grew to more than 3,000 pounds! He was used by his owners to promote the breed throughout England and Scotland, and was seen by tens of thousands of people. His fame spread like wildfire and made Shorthorns in high demand by the early 1800s.
The breed was considered the height of achievement for early improvement of production traits first pioneered by Robert Bakewell with British Longhorn cattle. The Shorthorn breed surpassed the success of the British Longhorn, and its influence on other breeds still resonates in many of today’s cattle.
Generations of Selection
The Albaugh family’s connection with the Shorthorn began with Norris’s grandfather, who bought a farm in Adin, California, in 1937. About a decade later, he bought his first purebred Shorthorn cattle. Even early on, Norris’ grandfather liked the Shorthorn crosses best because they were robust and grew quickly, so he always kept around a few purebreds to be able to produce profitable crossbred animals.
Norris’s grandfather moved the family ranch to its current location in Fallon, Nevada in 1969. Later, Norris’s father took over, and then Norris himself joined in to continue the family’s cattle operation. By the early 2000s, the Albaugh farm consisted of 25 percent pure Shorthorns and 75 percent Shorthorn crosses.
That situation changed dramatically in December 2003, when an imported Canadian Holstein with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) was discovered in Washington — the infamous “cow that stole Christmas.” The Canadian beef market crash and subsequent depression lasted a long time and destroyed many cattle operations. Worried the same thing would happen in the United States, the Albaughs decided that if any animal on their farm could be easily replaced at a sale barn, they didn’t need to own it. In 2004, they downsized their herd from about 700 to 200, with 98 percent of the remaining animals being Native Milking Shorthorns. Purebred production became their new focus.
A Serendipitous Encounter
It was around this time that Norris’ father encountered some articles on linear assessment and mineral balance in diet written by the famous cattleman, Gearld Fry, in Stockman Grass Farmer magazine. Intrigued, the Albaughs traveled to Colorado to hear Fry speak at a conference and, right then and there, Norris decided Fry’s techniques were the way to greatly improve their herd. The new techniques and ideas made sense from both a scientific and financial perspective. He hired Fry to visit the farm and assess the cattle. Norris learned that shoulder width, rump length, heart girth, pelvic width, and top line are key measurements. Along with other traits, these can be tracked over time to fine-tune a breeding program. Even tracking birth weights can be crucial in a rancher’s selection decisions. Calves should not be too big, and all of the cows have to be able to deliver a 65-pound calf unassisted. Norris cautions that breeders need to pay close attention to everything, saying, “You get what you’re selecting for, even if you’re not selecting for it.”
Another piece of the Albaugh herd improvement program was to take a more holistic approach to the cattle’s nutritional needs, particularly proper mineral balance, which is fundamental to the Fry approach. After some blood testing of the herd, the results revealed that although the cattle appeared healthy, they lacked certain minerals that common commercial mineral blocks weren’t providing enough of. Thanks to Norris’ association with Fry, he was able to locate scientists who tested his land, reviewed the bloodwork results, and generated a thorough evaluation of his herd’s needs. Once the correct mineral balance was achieved, the herd’s health and vigor improved dramatically.
Other improvements were gradually made to the herd’s health. At one point, Norris was spending $25 per animal per year on preventative measures, such as vaccinations, worming medications, and fly tags. Yet, despite all he did to ensure good health, he still had a lot of weak calves. Then, a local old-timer told him, “Norris, you’re doing everything by the book, but you’re poisoning your cattle. It’s too much.” It was timely advice with longstanding ramifications for the Albaugh herd. Norris started backing off on some of the vaccines and medications, and began selecting for cattle that were naturally more resistant to ailments and parasites.
A great example of this successful strategy is his battle with heel flies, whose larvae are known as the common cattle grub. The flies lay their eggs on the legs of cattle, and the larvae penetrate the skin once hatched. They then travel through the body and typically emerge from the animal’s back, leaving a sizable hole. The hole eventually heals up, but lowers the value of the animal’s meat and hide.
One year, Norris had ultrasounds done on some of his young bulls to evaluate their meat potential. To his surprise, the ultrasounds revealed that many of his calves were loaded with the heel fly parasites, even though there were no visible clues to their presence. So, he made the decision to start selecting for cattle that had a better natural resistance to the parasite. Over time, he was able to overcome the pest in his herd, and today he no longer needs repellents to deal with them.
Building up parasite resistance in the herd came down to the selection of production traits, such as large heart girth and capacity, and thin hides. Animals with larger heart girths create a greater capacity for the heart and lungs; this allows the development of more robust circulatory and respiratory systems to help the cattle fight off parasites. Norris says thin hides help the cattle’s bodies release heat in the summer desert heat. As the cattle move their thin hides, they shake off flies more effectively. This ultimately improves circulation. That same animal should also be able to grow dense fur in winter to protect from the cold weather. Norris tests for a thin hide by pulling the skin at the middle of the animal’s rib area. The hide should move at the hip and the shoulder as it’s being pulled.
A bonus is that thin hides are ideal for rawhide work. They don’t have to be trimmed or shaved to produce the final leather products — and the naturally thin hide is actually tougher than a thicker hide that needs splitting, which could compromise the strength of the leather.
Norris has compared his Shorthorns with larger crossbred animals, and even though the crossbred animals were heavier by a couple hundred pounds, the Shorthorns ended up yielding more meat because they had a better meat-to-bone ratio. As a grass-fed beef rancher, Norris gets frustrated that the commodity market will dock the price of the smaller animal with more meat, and pay more money for a bigger animal with less meat on the bone.
Reaching Ultimate Goals
The Albaugh herd experienced a setback in 2016, when an extended drought forced the family to reduce the number of animals to 45 breeding cows — the lowest count ever on their ranch. The drought broke late in the year. When rains made the ranchland green once again, the Albaughs began to build up the size of their breeding herd. When I asked Norris what he envisioned for the future of his herd, he said, “My ultimate goal is to never have to steer a bull calf, and to retain all the females because they’ll be of high breeding quality. Eventually, I’d like to walk away from the beef business and just sell breeding stock.” You can find the Albaugh Ranch online.
Jeannette Beranger is the senior program manager for The Livestock Conservancy. She maintains rare breeds on her North Carolina farm, where she focuses on chickens and horses. She’s the co-author of An Introduction to Heritage Breeds.