Vo-COW-bulary: Beef Breeds Edition

Cattle are great. They’re big, cute, and make us delicious beef, milk, leather, and all kinds of other byproducts. But did you know there are different kinds of cattle? Today, let’s learn about different breeds of cattle and what they’re known for.

Beef Breeds

First, you should know there are different categories of cattle breeds. Some breeds are best at turning their feed into muscle (our beef breeds). Other breeds are best at turning their feed into milk (our dairy breeds). This means you can (generally) tell what an animal’s purpose is just by looking at it! Here are some popular beef breeds of cattle.



Angus cattle are definitely the most popular breed of beef cattle. Think about those Hardee’s commercials about Angus Thickburgers. This is what they’re talking about.

The Angus breed originated in Scotland in the 19th century. These cattle have been around for a long time, and have built a reputation for high quality meat with great marbling (intramuscular fat, which adds flavor to meat). These animals are hardy, polled (naturally hornless), efficient, and are more resistant to pink eye than other breeds.

Some folks may worry about large, black cattle overheating in the summer, but for the most part they are safe here in Iowa. However, it is very important that cattle have access to lots of water, shade, water misters, or to a breeze regardless of breed during hot summer months.



Hereford cattle are another common cattle breed. Up through the mid-20th century, this was the predominant cattle breed. However, as times (and cattle fashions) changed, people started moving away from the short, thick Herefords of the 1950s and more toward tall Chianinas and average-sized Angus cattle. Today, the Hereford breed is very comparable to other breeds of cattle in size, stature, and meat quality. However, they are very distinguishable with their red and white coloring.

Hereford cattle were also founded in Great Britain (Herefordshire, England) as long ago as the 1600s. This breed has changed in appearance quite a bit over time, but have maintained their dark red to cherry red and white coloring, docility, foraging ability, and longevity. Though the traditional Hereford breed does naturally grow horns, there is a sub-breed of Polled Herefords that were founded in Iowa. Read our blog about this breed here.

Because of their white faces, Herefords tend to be at a greater risk of developing pink eye. However, this can be treated easily when recognized, and breed leaders have conducted research and are experimenting with breeding Hereford cattle with red rings around their eyes, different shaped eyelashes, and other interesting things to help curb this in the future.



Photo source: Dismukes Ranch, https://dismukesranch.com/charolais

Pronounced shar-lay, this breed is recognizable as it is one of the few breeds that is predominantly white in color. Charolais cattle are relatively large cattle and heavily muscled. They are said to be well-suited for cross breeding.

This breed originated in France as early as the 16th century, and was initially bred for draft, milk, and meat. From today’s animals, you may be able to see the remnants of those draft qualities in their large stature and heavy muscling. This breed is also naturally horned.

It has been said that Charolais cattle have more of an aggressive temperament than other breeds, especially in that of protective mothers and bulls. However, extra care and caution should always be taken when working with cattle, particularly mother cows and bulls. There is also some research being done to help select for temperament traits genetically.



Photo source: Kent Ward, Farm Online, https://www.farmonline.com.au/story/5025334/new-325000-australian-brahman-bull-record/

Right away, you can probably tell this animal looks quite a bit different from the European breeds we’ve been talking about. That’s because the Brahman is a Bos indicus breed of cattle, as opposed to the Bos taurus breeds we see most often. They differ mostly in ear shape and placement, size of dewlap, and size of the hump on the back.

This breed of cattle originated in India. Over time, they have developed resistance to some pretty harsh environments including excessive heat, parasites, diseases, and insects. Here in Iowa, we don’t have much of this bloodline in our herds, but in the southern states, crosses with Brahmans are common. In fact, there is another breed of cattle that is crossed with Angus and Brahman called Brangus. This helps capitalize on the meat quality traits of Angus cattle, while benefiting from the heat tolerance and hardiness of the Brahman cattle.

Brahman cattle are not necessarily known for meat quality as much as their tolerance to tropical environments. However, this does make them an ideal candidate for cross breeding systems in more demanding climates. Bos taurus breeds can easily be bred to these cattle to produce high-producing cattle that are better equipped to thrive in harsh environments.


Most cattle produced commercially are not just one breed. They are usually a cross between two, three, or even four or more popular breeds. The breeds listed above are all good candidates, but some others include Simmental, Limousin, Maine Anjou, Shorthorn, or Gelbvieh.

Why do these breeds get crossed? Mostly it’s to promote heterosis, or hybrid vigor. For some reason, when you cross two animals from different genetic backgrounds (breeds), their offspring performs better than would be expected based on either parent. This extra performance (usually noted in weight gain) is essentially a free benefit of using genetically diverse parents. Farmers producing commercial calves may purchase purebred cattle to use for breeding purposes so they can benefit from this natural phenomenon.

All breeds of cattle have their own purposes, strengths, and weaknesses. Farmers may pay attention to specific characteristics that work well in their style of farming, marketing plan, and environment to pick the ones that work best for them. For more information on various breeds of cattle, visit The Cattle Site and Oklahoma State University’s Department of Animal Science page.


Celebrating Porktober; Getting to Know Pig Breeds

In case you haven’t heard, October is pork month! This is a great time to try a new pork recipe and get in touch with the pork industry. As with most industries, there are many things to learn about the pork industry. One fun thing to learn more about is breeds of pigs.

There are many breeds of pigs, with many different characteristics. Some breeds of pigs are known for their great meat quality. Others are known for superior mothering abilities. These breeds were domesticated in many different regions for many different purposes. Today, the Pork Checkoff recognizes about eight major swine breeds in the United States. Let’s walk through those, learn about their characteristics, and talk about why those traits are important.

As we talk about these breeds, there’s one cheat you can use to remember what they look like. If the name of the breed ends in “-shire” it will have pointy ears. All other breeds of pigs have ears that flop downwards.

yorkshireFirst, let’s talk about the Yorkshire breed. Yorkshire pigs are the most-recorded breed in North America. They are solid white, and have erect ears (did you catch the “-shire”?). Yorkshire pigs are known for being muscular, and for having lean meat.


The second most-recorded breed of swine in the U.S. is the Duroc breed. Durocs are solid red, and their ears droop forward. Duroc pigs have many good qualities, including the quality of their pork, fast growth, and longevity of females.

berkshireThird in the list of most-recorded breeds is the Berkshire breed. Berkshire pigs are black with white tips on their feet, nose, and tail. Berkshire pigs are known for high meat quality and flavor, as well as efficiency. The American Berkshire Association is the oldest swine registry in the world!


Hampshire pigs are the fourth-most recorded breed in the U.S. These pigs are black with a white belt across their shoulders and front legs. This breed boomed in popularity from the 1970s through the 1990s largely because of its lean meat. This is also the kind of pig I showed in the purebred classes when I was in 4-H!

landrace-1024x619Next, we have Landrace pigs in our 5th most-recorded breed spot. Landrace pigs are white and have droopy ears. They are known for being a great mothering breed. They are also fairly long in their body, and can contribute good carcass quality traits to a pig herd.


Chester White pigs are also white with droopy ears. Like Landrace pigs, they are also noted for their mothering abilities. These pigs originated in Chester County, Pennsylvania, hence the name!

poland_china-1024x619Poland China pigs ironically did not originate in either Poland or China. Instead, they hail from Ohio. This breed is notably long of body, and (like Berkshire pigs) is dark-colored with white points on the feet, face, and tail. A good way to tell the difference between Poland China pigs and Berkshire pigs is that Poland Chinas will have droopy ears.


Spotted pigs are easy to “spot”! As the name suggests, they have large black and white spots, and have ears that droop forward. These pigs are known to be feed efficient, as well as productive, docile, and durable.


That wraps up a quick summary of a few common breeds. But why do these breeds matter? For many producers, these distinct breeds will help them build a productive crossbreeding system for market pigs. When two animals of very different genetic backgrounds (in livestock, this means different breeds) breed, their offspring will perform better than either of its parents would suggest. This is a phenomenon called hybrid vigor, or heterosis. Producers want to use this to their advantage to produce the best animals possible.

Different breeds may also be more beneficial in different aspects of production. For example, we noted before that certain breeds of pigs are exceptional mothers, and other breeds are known more for meat quality. If a producer uses one breed of pigs to sire pigs, and another breed to mother pigs, the offspring can benefit from the meat quality of the sire and may perform better as a piglet because of the dam, plus gaining all of the benefits of heterosis.

When we talk about an animal performing better because of heterosis, what do we mean? Will they play better basketball, or be an accomplished dancer? Probably not. With pigs, when we talk about performance, we are largely talking about how well they grow. We want pigs to grow quickly, use their feed efficiently, and grow to a large size – at least in specific muscle groups. We also want our pigs to be physically sound. We want them to be healthy, and able to walk, move, and function without any difficulty.

Crossbreeding animals can have many benefits, from heterosis to genetic variety within a herd, but there are many ways to attain the same goal. Some farmers might use a terminal two-breed cross system with Duroc sires and Landrace dams. Some farmers might use a three-breed cross system, with 50% Berkshire, 50% Hampshire sires and Chester White dams. Other farmers might use a sustaining system, with all animals being the same percentage of the same breeds to maintain a consistent level of heterosis.

Like many things in agriculture, many decisions really come down to what works best for the producer. Some producers value certain characteristics or systems more than others because of their environment, management style, and even local markets.

For more facts about Iowa’s pork industry, check out this resource!

Happy Porktober!


Iowa’s Beef Breed

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.


Screen capture from The Rare Breed, starring Jimmy Stewart

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!

Everything and the Oink!

Iowa is famous for raising corn, soybeans, eggs (chickens), and…pigs! The state is one of the top swine producers in the country raising more than 20 million pigs at any one time. Each year, Iowa markets more than 49 million pigs according to the 2012 USDA census. Sales.pngTotal cash receipts in 2013 exceeded $7.5 billion. So it is kind of a big deal. And who doesn’t love bacon?

Pigs, also called hogs or swine, were among the first animals to be domesticated. This may have happened as early as 7000 B.C. Most of the pigs in the United States are produced in Midwestern states like Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, and Nebraska. That is because of the availability of food like corn and soybeans for the pigs to eat. North Carolina also is a huge swine producing state.

Real quick…here are some basic terms that you might hear when discussing pigs.
Barrow – a neutered male pig
Boar – a mature male pig that can reproduce
Farrow – to give birth to a litter of piglets
Finished – ready for market (approximately 275 lbs.)
Gilt – a young female pig, usually under 12 months of age
Litter – a group of piglets born at the same time by the same sow
Piglet – a young pig
Sow – a female pig that has given birth to a litter
Wean – to remove a piglet from it mother’s milk and give it solid food to eat

One hog consumes approximately 9 to 10 bushels of corn (~560 pounds) and 1 to 2 bushels (~100 pounds) of soybeans from birth to market. As the pig grows, all of that corn and soybean feed helps keep the animal happy and healthy turning into lean muscle. The primary goal is a lean animal for human consumption, but manure is an important by-product, too! Approximately 10 finishing pigs can provide enough manure to provide nutrients for one acre of cropland!

Pigs are known as monogastrics, which means they have only one stomach, just like humans. Young piglets will drink their mother’s milk until they are 16-22 days old. Once they are weaned from their mother, they are fed a diet primarily made up of ground corn and soybeans. The corn is a carbohydrate and supplies the nutrients needed for heat and energy. Soybean meal provides them the protein they need to build muscle. Vitamins and minerals are also included in their feed ration. An animal nutritionist will work closely with the pig farmer to create a balanced diet for the pigs to grow strong and healthy. Check out our lesson plan on pig feed rations here.

Scientists are working hard to figure out how to ensure pigs stay healthy with their diet. They also work to figure out how to increase feed efficiency. One project that the USDA is overseeing is probiotics for pigs. Humans might eat yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles or other foods that have live cultures of bacteria. Some of these bacteria are good for your digestive system and help keep you healthy. Pigs are the same in that they need a healthy digestive system. So one USDA research project is probiotics for pigs. A healthy digestive system increases the feed efficiency and allows pigs to turn more of the corn and soybeans they eat into lean muscle.

9e13fb11bddac4d626e6a4f6987bc810.jpgThere are many different breeds of pigs. The Yorkshire is one of the most common, although many farmers raise cross-bred animals to achieve high quality in their final product. Yorkshire pigs are white with erect ears. They are known for their muscle, with a high proportion of lean meat and low back fat.

2.jpgDurocs (the red ones with the drooping ears) are the second most popular breed. The are valued for their product quality, carcass yield, fast growth, and lean-gain efficiency. They also have very prolific females that have a long lifespan.

berkshire.pngBerkshire are usually black in color and have very fast and efficient growth. They are efficient in reproducing. They are known for their meat flavor.

Other popular breeds include the Spotted, the Landrace, the Poland China, the Hampshire, the Chester White, and the Tamworth. Each is has positive characteristics depending on what you are trying to achieve. The Landrace are really long animals and might provide an extra cut or two of the loin. The Tamworth is known for outstanding flavor in bacon.

Pork is the meat that comes from a hog. People eat many different pork products such as bacon, sausage, pork chops, and ham. Even pepperoni (like on pizza) is a pork product! Pepperoni is the most popular pizza topping in the United States. A 265-pound market hog will provide approximately 160 pounds of pork in various cuts.

In addition to meat, pigs also provide humans with other products including valves for human hearts, suede for shoes and clothing, and gelatin for food. Pig by-products also help make water filters, insulation, rubber, antifreeze, plastics, floor waxes, chalk, adhesives, crayons, fertilizer, glue, brushes, buttons, and more.

Iowa has more than 6,200 hog operations. These operations employ more than 40,000 Iowans in the day-to-day care of hogs. But there are loads of other jobs that part of the swine industry as well. Truckers, veterinarians, scientists, processors, genetic specialists, and meat cutters are just a few of the many careers in the swine industry. So the pig industry in Iowa is kind of a big deal.


**Some content re-purposed from Kansas Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom.