In previous blogs, we have talked some about the differences in breeds of cattle. Over time, cattle were bred for different traits in different parts of the world, which resulted in many of the breeds we know today. For instance, Holsteins are large dairy cattle with superior milk production. Angus cattle are a popular beef breed with superior marbling and meat quality.
But if you think back to old westerns, it’s rarely a Holstein or an Angus that was represented on a cattle drive. More often than not, the herds are a mass of red and white with curly hair on their faces, and those animals are called Herefords.
The Hereford breed of cattle was founded in Herefordshire England in the 1700s. Herefords are known for being docile, and were bred for high meat production and quality. Traditionally, they are a horned breed, meaning that all animals (both male and female) of this breed naturally grow horns. Since early cattle breeders actually preferred horns, this trait became more or less fixed in the breed, with polled animals being only a rarity. However, once the trait was fixed, producers noticed it was a problem.
When cattle have horns, it’s very easy for them to hurt things. Horns can be long and sharp, and with a quick toss of the head, an animal can push, cut, or skewer other animals or their owner. This not only becomes a liability for the other members of the herd, which are the farmer’s livelihood, but they also become a danger to the farmer themselves.
Because of this, cattle owners began the practice of dehorning cattle. It’s not a fun, easy, or nice task. Over the years, producers have gotten better at it, using local anesthetics and more humane techniques, but even now it is simply a necessary task that producers grit their teeth to accomplish to the best of their ability.
Let’s rewind back to 1898 to Warren Gammon, an Iowa lawyer and cattle breeder.
Warren Gammon was a Hereford breeder that hailed from Des Moines, but his farm was near St. Mary’s in Warren County. He first saw naturally hornless (polled) cattle at an exhibition at the Trans-Mississippi Fair in Omaha in 1898. From there, he ran with this idea: can we develop a modern beef breed without horns?
In Gammon’s mind, dehorning was an unnecessary practice. He felt that he could better the treatment of cattle by selecting for naturally polled animals. He once wrote an essay titled “Is It Morally Right to Use a Horned Bull?” In this essay, he said:
“When we consider all of her [a cow’s] merits, we are forced to conclude that there is no species of animal on earth that is more entitled to sympathetic and kind treatment or that has greater claims on our admiration than the American cow and her progeny.”
On his quest, Gammon searched the country for other naturally hornless Hereford cattle. According to Birth of a Breed by Orville K. Sweet, Gammon wrote letters to 2,500 members of the American Hereford Association searching out these odd, naturally hornless animals. He purchased four bulls and ten cows from these inquiries. Three of those animals were eliminated from his breeding stock, and the remaining 11 were the first of the Polled Hereford breed registered in 1901.
Just a few years later in 1907, the American Polled Hereford Breeders Association was founded and headquartered in Des Moines. Both Warren and his son, Bert, were instrumental in the growth and development of this breed. By the 1950s, Polled Herefords had proven to be a popular, versatile, hardy, and adaptive breed. In 1995, the American Polled Hereford Association merged with the American Hereford Association, both of which are now housed in Kansas City, Missouri.
From an Iowa standpoint, we can claim not only this breed, but also these two influential Iowans. Warren and Bert Gammon were able to use their knowledge of heredity to create a breed of cattle that is safer to handle while eliminating an imperfect practice.
You can even pay homage to the birthplace of the Polled Hereford breed! There isn’t much left of the original site (now on the National Register of Historic Places), but there is a boulder with a plaque explaining the significance.
What’s more, you can even visit the Gammons’ barn at the Iowa State Fairgrounds! The barn was moved from the origin site to the fairgrounds in 1991, where it now serves as a museum. This lesser-known beauty is tucked in between the Livestock Pavilion and the Cattle Barn. Inside, you can see bronzed hats of American Polled Hereford Association Hall of Famers, books, documents, pictures, and other historical pieces relating to the Polled Hereford breed. (And as a bonus, when you’re there you might meet my dad, Ray!)
I hope you had fun learning about one of my favorite pieces of Iowa history!
Ps. If you’re interested in modern efforts to genetically dehorn cattle, check out this really cool video!