Best Beef Cattle Breeds
Breeds of Beef Cattle and Their Characteristics
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Every beef cattle breed has pluses and minuses, and what might be a plus for one farmer could be a drawback in another situation. For instance, a breed that does well in a hot climate may not do well in a cold one, and vice versa. Some breeds are better than others for finishing on grass. If you have a small farm and your kids are helping handle the cattle, you want a breed with a gentle disposition. It’s important to choose a breed that fits your goals and purposes. Here are descriptions of most of the breeds you’ll encounter, but you can find more details on their websites.
Breeds in North America include British breeds like Angus, Hereford, and Shorthorn; continental (European) breeds like Charolais, Simmental, Salers,
Limousin, Gelbieh, Braunvieh, Tarentaise, Chianina, Maine Anjou, Blonde d’Aquitaine, Piedmontese, Romagnola; American breeds that were created
by mixing British and/or continental breeds with Brahman to produce better hot-climate cattle (Brangus, Braford, Charbray, Santa Gertrudis, Beefmaster, etc.), or the Texas Longhorn descended from feral Spanish cattle in the Southwest; and breeds from other continents such as Watusi, Wagyu, Murray Grey, etc. Various breeds can be crossed to add traits that you might desire in your beef animals or brood cows.
Angus are black and genetically polled (no horns). Breed traits include fast growth, marbled meat (flecks of fat, making it tender and juicy), and maternal ability (aggressive, protective mothers that produce a lot of milk for their calves).
A separate breed of Red Angus was created by selecting Angus with a recessive red gene. Angus and Angus-cross calves are popular with
feedlot buyers because of their excellent carcass traits.
Angus cows are popular with many ranchers because they are good mothers and require very little care at calving. They are not always the best choice for beginners because of their hot-headed nature, though there are some mellow individuals. If you want to be up close and personal with your cows, choose a breed with a calmer disposition or find a breeder who has selected mellow Angus for easy-handling.
Herefords are large-framed and heavy-boned with a red body and white face, feet, belly, and tail switch, and horns. Today there are also polled Herefords, created in the early 1900s by selectively breeding a few mutant
Herefords that had no horns. Most Herefords are docile and mellow, which makes them excellent for beef cattle farming for beginners.
Shorthorns originated as dual-purpose cattle (meat and milk). They are red, white, roan or spotted, and horned. Calves are small at birth (easy calving) but grow fast. Today in the U.S., there are two registries — for milking Shorthorns and beef Shorthorns. Milking ability, fast growth, and tractability make this breed a good choice for small farmers who want to raise beef.
Simmentals originated in Switzerland as a dairy cow breed. Yellow-brown with white markings, these cattle are noted for rapid growth, large frame, and milk production. They became popular for crossbreeding to create larger, fast-growing cattle. They are slower to mature than British breeds, taking longer to reach finish weight. Beginning stockmen desiring to use this breed should keep disposition in mind and select carefully since some individuals are flighty and hot-headed.
Charolais are large, white, heavy-muscled cattle that originated in
France as draft animals. They are noted for feed efficiency, heavy
weaning weights, and extensive muscling. Many stockmen use Charolais bulls on cows of other breeds for a terminal cross (selling all offspring as beef) to produce fast-gaining large calves that do well in the feedlot. One
of the biggest drawbacks to the breed has been calving difficulty because calves are large and thick at birth. Some breeders have selected for lower birthweights to get away from this problem.
Limousin is an old breed from western France. Red-gold and well-muscled, these cattle are finer boned than Charolais (less calving problems) but grow as rapidly. Some breeders have created a black, polled version. Like other
continental breeds, Limousin has been crossed with other breeds to increase size and weaning weight. The calves grow faster and larger
than British breeds, but are slower maturing and do not finish as quickly. Disposition should be taken into consideration when selecting stock for a small farm.
Gelbvieh are tan/gold and originated in Austria/Germany as multi-purpose cattle (meat, milk, and draft). They are fast-growing and mature quicker than some other European breeds. They are noted for high fertility, calving
ease, and mothering ability. As in all continental breeds, selection for disposition is important, since some are less easy to handle than others.
Salers are dark red cattle from France and popular for crossbreeding because of calving ease, hardiness, good milking ability, and fertility. Some
breeders in America are now producing black, polled Salers.
This breed has a bad reputation for disposition, and though there are some mellow family lines, the hot-headed flightiness of some of these cattle can make them a poor choice for beginners.
Tarentaise originated in the French Alps as dual-purpose (meat and milk) animals, related to Brown Swiss. Cherry red with darker ears, nose, and feet, they are moderate size (one of the smaller continental breeds), highly
fertile, and early maturing. Due to their origins in the rugged Alps, these cattle are hardier than most European breeds, and also have less calving and fertility problems than some of the larger cattle. They work well in crossbreeding programs or where cattle must utilize marginal grazing land.
Chianina are white Italian cattle originally used as draft animals. They are the largest cattle; mature bulls stand more than six feet tall at the shoulder and may weigh 4,000 pounds. This beef cattle breed is well-muscled and long-legged. In America, they are primarily used for crossbreeding — as a terminal cross with all calves marketed as beef (no females kept). Since they
are high-strung and huge, they are not a good choice for beginners.
American Brahman cattle were developed from several strains of Indian cattle, including some from Brazil. Calves are small at birth, grow fast, but do not become sexually mature as quickly as British breeds. Heat-tolerant and resistant to ticks and insects, these large cattle have loose floppy skin
on dewlap, brisket, and belly, large droopy ears, horns that curve up and back, and can be any color. In a hot climate, they do well. Shy and flighty, they are not a good choice for beginners unless handled carefully. With selection and proper handling, however, they can become very docile.
Beefmaster is an American beef cattle breed produced by crossing Brahman with Shorthorn and Hereford to create a heat-tolerant animal with good beef production. Beefmaster cattle today are slightly less than half Brahman and slightly more than ¼ Hereford and ¼ Shorthorn. They can be any color or spotted. Rigid culling in range conditions, based on hardiness, disposition, fertility, growth, conformation, and milk production has created a superior beef animal that needs no pampering.
Santa Gertrudis were created on the King Ranch in Texas by crossing Brahman with Shorthorn. These red cattle are heat-tolerant, with good beef production. They are approximately 5/8 Shorthorn and 3/8 Brahman, known for easy calving, good mothering ability, and improved beef quality over the Brahman. They gain weight nicely on grass, and outperform British and continental breeds in hot climates, but they may be too flighty for an inexperienced stockman.
Murray Grey are moderate-sized, silver-gray beef cattle breed descended from one Shorthorn cow in Australia who produced 12 gray calves when bred to Angus bulls. These polled cattle have easy-born, fast-growing calves. They have high-quality meat, good milk and mothering ability, and better dispositions than most Angus cattle — traits that make them attractive to the small farmer.
Scotch Highland cattle originated in Scotland, surviving in the highlands on sparse, coarse native forage. They have impressive horns and long hair. Most are red but may range from tan to black — with an occasional white or dun. As one of the hardiest breeds, they survive in poor conditions where other cattle perish. Calves are born small but grow rapidly. Mature animals are small compared to most beef breeds. Due to ease of calving, hardiness, and dramatic hybrid vigor when crossed with other cattle, they are sometimes used in crossbreeding programs to produce efficient, hardy range cattle.
Galloways, another Scottish breed, are polled, black (though a few are red, white, or dun), and sturdy, with long shaggy hair that sheds in summer. They handle severe winter weather and keep foraging in deep snow. Calves are born small and hardy and gain rapidly. These cattle are efficient and can do well on grass, without grain, producing a trim carcass with a high percentage of meat.
Devon cattle originated in southwestern England as draft animals and were later selected for beef traits, producing flavorful meat on native grasses. This is a popular breed for people who raise grass-finished beef.
Red Poll originated in England as dual-purpose animals. Cows are highly fertile, and calves are small but grow fast. Since this breed is not closely related to other beef breeds, it can be utilized in a crossbreeding program to obtain exceptional hybrid vigor. This breed has been used primarily for grass finishing, reaching market weight at a young age, and excels in meat quality (marbling and tenderness) without grain.
Welsh Black cattle originated along the coast of Wales. They have excellent disposition; they were historically raised and tended by women. Harsh weather and poor grazing developed an ability to get by on minimal forage and they handle cold weather better than most breeds. Originally bred for milk as well as meat, the cows raise fast-growing calves. The cows are good
mothers, fertile, and long-lived.
The smallest beef cattle breed is the Dexter, originating in southern Ireland, bred by farmers with small holdings in the mountains. The cattle foraged in rough country adjacent to little farms. These small, gentle cattle need less feed than other breeds and thrive in a variety of climates. Calves are born easily and grow fast, maturing by 12 to 18 months of age as finished beef.
Wagyu cattle originated in Japan and are known for highly-marbled, tasty meat — which will be the highest-priced meat on the menu at a good restaurant. Small farmers who raise Wagyu often process and sell the meat directly to consumers. The breed you choose will depend on your goals and purposes — and how you want to raise and market them.
What is your favorite beef cattle breed? We would love to hear from you in the comments below.
Originally published in the January/February 2021 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.