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.
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.
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.
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.