Great Grassfed Heritage Cattle Breeds
By Jennifer Kendall | Jun 26, 2012
Cattle have been a familiar part of the American agricultural landscape for centuries. In the last 75 years, however, most farmers have used just a handful of breeds for milk and meat production. During this time, the world lost about 25 percent of its cattle breeds, many of which were more suited to pasturing on a small farm or homestead than being grainfed. As the benefits of grassfed milk and beef become increasingly recognized, more and more small farmers are turning to rare heritage cattle breeds for their hardiness, ease of care, and ability to efficiently produce meat and milk on a small area of forage. Here are some exceptional historic heritage cattle breeds that might fit well into your farming operation, whether you have an acre or a section.
Great for grass-based dairying, the Ayrshire breed combines beauty and utility to meet a farmer’s needs. The breed takes its name from southwest Scotland’s Ayr County where it was developed to excel on the rough, rocky terrain and in the drenching rains typical of the region. Scottish farmers purposefully developed the Ayrshire as a standardized breed. Many of these farmers depended on milk to make cheeses for market and to feed their families, and they wanted a rustic, hardy breed that was a reliable producer of quality milk.
The breed was first imported to the United States in the 1830s, and its popularity grew quickly, especially in the New England area. In the mid-20th century, as Holsteins and other “improved” breeds were introduced to the dairy world, the Ayrshire lost favor.
Today, the Ayrshire is regaining popularity. With its active, alert disposition, the Ayrshire makes an agile grazer that produces up to 20,000 pounds of milk per year. The breed is known for its long, productive life span, giving the farmer many profitable years of quality milk. The Ayrshire has a stylish appearance, sporting a white base-coat with dark red to reddish-brown spots and freckles. The breed has handsome, lyre-shaped horns, excellent udders, and sturdy feet and legs. Ayrshires are medium-sized cattle ranging from 1,100 to 1,600 pounds. The breed is often found in the North Atlantic states, but its adaptability makes it suitable for both warm and cold climates.
As niche markets for artisan cheeses and milk products continue to grow, the Ayrshire breed is riding the wave back into the limelight. Their bovine beauty, ability to graze well and high-quality milk make them an ideal fit for small-scale dairies, particularly those interested in making cheese.
The Galloway is a Scottish breed first developed in southwest Scotland and refined in the 1700s and early 1800s. Interestingly, the Galloway is related to another famous Scottish beef breed — the Aberdeen Angus. For a short time, the herd books for these two breeds were maintained together, but since 1877, the breeds have diverged. The Angus has been solely developed for beef production with an emphasis on grain-finishing, whereas Galloway breeders selected an animal that could produce excellent beef on the poor forage found on subsistence farms in the Scottish countryside.
The Galloway was first imported to the United States in the 1850s. The breed’s initial popularity rivaled that of the Angus, but in the late 1800s, the Galloway began to disappear.
Today, the Galloway’s global population is less than 10,000 animals, but farmers interested in grassfed cattle are jumping on the Galloway bandwagon. Galloway cattle are renowned for their high-quality, tasty beef. The breed has a long body conformation, which increases the production of high-priced cuts of meat. Its innate grazing and browsing abilities produce an exceptional beef with little input needed from the farmer. Averaging 1,200 pounds for cows and 1,800 to 2,000 pounds for bulls, the Galloway is a medium-sized breed that adapts to both warm and cold climates. The breed has an exceptionally heavy winter coat that it sheds in warmer months or in hotter climates. The breed’s coat is so warm, in fact, that it was used in the early 1900s in place of buffalo robes.
Most Galloways are black, but red, dun and white also occur. Breeders further describe Galloways as easy calvers; they are rugged, mild-mannered, and able to flourish on grasses and weeds that other breeds would avoid to the point of starvation. The Galloway is sure to steer you in the right direction when it comes to grass-based beef production.
Interested in grass-based dairying, eh? The Canadienne, or French Canadienne, just might be the breed for your small farm or homestead. The Canadienne hails from Canada, as you might guess, and is considered one of the oldest cattle breeds developed in North America. The breed’s development began in the early 1600s when French settlers brought Norman and Breton cattle to what is now Canada. This foundation stock was isolated for more than a century, adapting to the rugged conditions and harsh climate of the Canadian landscape. The result was a hardy breed that produced well on poor forage and in challenging environments.
For many years, the Canadienne was the Canadian small farmer’s breed of choice, but in the early 19th century, “improved” breeds began to compete for attention. By the 1850s, Canada’s government officially discouraged the use of Canadiennes, causing their population numbers to drastically decline. After realizing the inherent value of the adaptations of their native cattle, the Canadian government reversed its position in the 1880s; despite the government’s best efforts, however, the damage was already done.
Today, the Canadienne remains a critically endangered breed, but there is a growing demand for its use in grass-based dairying. The breed has the rare ability to maximize low-quality forage, making it an excellent grazer and economical producer; the average cow produces 15,000 pounds of milk per lactation period. Canadienne cattle are black, brown, tan or russet with a light fawn muzzle and udder. Calves are born with a light brown coat that turns darker as they mature. Cows average 1,100 pounds and bulls are around 1,600 pounds.
True to its origins, the Canadienne is superbly adapted to cold climates. The breed also is noted for its superior fertility and ease of calving. Canadienne cattle are typically found in the Northeast United States and Canada. If you want a cold-hardy producer of high-quality milk that can thrive on sparse forage, the Canadienne might be the perfect fit.
Considering small-scale, grassfed beef production in warmer climates? Look no further than the Pineywoods breed. The Pineywoods cattle, with almost 500 years of adaptation to the brushy, wooded terrain of the American Southeast, is heat-tolerant, long-lived, resistant to parasites and diseases, and able to produce well on minimal forage.
Descending from Spanish cattle brought to the Americas in the early 1500s, it is one of the oldest breeds of cattle in the United States. The breed was “made in America” and was largely shaped by agricultural and environmental conditions in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and other areas in the southeastern United States. Historically, Pineywoods were primarily beef cattle, but they were sometimes used in dairying. The breed also served as a draft animal in the establishment of the lucrative timber industry of the Southeast. Today, the breed is critically endangered, and many of the remaining animals are in the hands of deep-rooted Southern families hoping to share the breed’s superb characteristics with a wider audience.
The Pineywoods’ unique characteristics make them a nice fit for those seeking to raise cattle on rough or wooded pasture. They forage on the rough, native vegetation of the South — conditions under which most cattle would not survive. The Pineywoods have earned the nickname “Woods” cattle because they graze normally, but also browse on brush, twigs and tree leaves in the pine forests. This adaptation allows the Pineywoods to make good use of marginal forage, and they need little from the farmer in the way of supplemental feed.
Pineywoods are small and rugged, with cows weighing 600 to 800 pounds and bulls averaging 800 to 1,200 pounds. Most Pineywoods cattle are horned, though horn lengths and shapes vary. The Pineywoods breed includes almost all of the solid colors and many of the spotting patterns known to cattle. If you’re looking for a good all-purpose breed that can handle rough forage and is heat-tolerant and disease-resistant, Pineywoods cattle might be just what you need.
Devon or Beef Devon
Often described as the “grass-farmer’s cow,” the Devon or Beef Devon is a practical and economical choice for grassfed beef or milk. In 1623, the Pilgrims brought British Devon cattle to New England. The hardiness of the breed combined with its availability near British ports made Devons an obvious choice for the colonists’ voyage. The breed became well established in colonial America, but, by the early 1800s, it began losing popularity, and, by the early 1900s, the breed was rarely found outside of New England. In the 1950s, in order to meet increasing market demands for beef cattle, the remaining Devon breeders split into two groups: those selecting for traditional characteristics and those selecting for beef characteristics. Today, there are two types of Devon cattle, the Milking Devon and the Beef Devon. The Milking Devon is the original triple-purpose animal.
The modern-day Beef Devon is making a comeback as ranchers and farmers rediscover the breed’s hardiness, grazing abilities and high feed-conversion ratios. The Beef Devon produces superb beef from grass; the high-quality, well-marbled meat has a fine texture and good flavor. The breed also is heat-
tolerant, allowing it to adapt and perform well in a variety of environments. The Devon’s mothering abilities, docility and high fertility rates are added benefits for the grass-based producer. Devon cattle are ruby-red and can be horned or polled. They are medium-sized with cows averaging 1,100 pounds and bulls averaging 1,600 to 2,000 pounds. As the market for grassfed beef continues to grow, the Beef Devon’s productivity and top-notch grazing abilities will help re-establish the breed’s role in grass-based production systems.
Carolina born and raised, Jennifer Kendall resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, and dreams of one day owning some of these heritage cattle breeds.
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is a nonprofit membership organization working to protect more than 180 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 ALBC website.
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