Those familiar with the popularity of the Angus breed today may be surprised to hear of its humble beginnings. Angus cattle originally descended from polled (naturally hornless) native cattle of Aberdeenshire and Angus, counties in northern Scotland. The strains from the two counties were crossed and recrossed over time until a distinct breed, then called the Aberdeen-Angus, was formed.
Credit for creating the Angus breed as we know it today typically goes to Hugh Watson, a young man who started life in the cattle business with one bull and six of his father’s best cows, all hornless cattle from the county of Angus. He systematically improved his breed throughout the early 1800s, mainly with the help of a bull named Old Jock and a prolific cow named Old Granny. The pedigrees of most purebred Angus cattle today trace back to Old Jock and Old Granny.
The Angus breed did not arrive in America until 1873, and incidentally the first place it called home was Kansas. It all began with Sir George Grant’s dream of settling a number aristocratic of young Englishmen on the plains to raise crops and livestock. When he and his wealthy young companions set foot in the new colony of Victoria, they had four Angus bulls with them.
Grant was convinced that the breed would prove to be the ideal beef animal for the region. He had a hard time overcoming the skepticism of the Americans of his day, however. When he took his bulls to the 1873 Kansas City Livestock Exposition in Missouri, the cattlemen, used to seeing only Shorthorns and Texas Longhorns, scoffed. “Freaks” was the term commonly applied to the strange-looking black creatures without horns.
But Grant did not give up. He began crossbreeding his bulls with Texas Longhorns in an effort to prove their worth. Like their Angus fathers, the resulting calves were black and hornless, but they were extremely tough, survived the winter with ease, and gained weight well in the spring. The former scoffers were duly impressed.
Grant died in 1878, and his colony disintegrated as the dissipated young Englishmen gave up and headed home. The Angus breed, however, was firmly established in America. Over the next five years, 1,200 cattle were imported into the country, most of them landing in the Midwest and forming the backbone of the beef industry.
Both black and red cattle were originally accepted for registration as purebred Angus until 1917, when the American Aberdeen Angus Association selected the more fashionable black as the color of choice and stopped registering reds. Some dedicated breeders, however, believed that the reds had all the advantages of the blacks, plus extra heat tolerance. Accordingly, the Red Angus Association of America was formed in 1954.
The Angus is now America’s top beef breed. A Certified Angus Beef program and a strong presence in the fast-food industry have made Angus the choice of many in cattle business.
The Angus is a popular beef breed in its own right, but it is widely used in crossbreeding programs to impart to the offspring hornlessness, calving ease, carcass quality, and that black color that brings dollars at the sale barn. Angus bulls are also a favorite choice for mating with dairy cattle to produce beef calves.
Temperament varies widely throughout the breed. In general, Angus cattle have a reputation for being calm and good-natured, though perhaps not as much so as Herefords. The Angus is a very popular breed, however, and popularity tends to attract incautious and sometimes unscrupulous breeders. Therefore, some bloodlines have produced cattle that are unstable in temperament. On some parts of the continent, Angus cattle (bulls, cows, and steers alike) have even earned the reputation for being wildly aggressive.
Angus cattle are often touted as being extremely healthy and highly unlikely to get pinkeye, sunburn, or cancer because of their pigmented skin. While this is typically (though not inevitably) the case, the breed does have a number of genetic defects lurking in its heredity such as dwarfism, extra legs, excessive bone formation, and neuropathic hydrocephalus, a condition in which the cranial cavity is filled with fluid. These defects are probably due to the breed’s extreme popularity, as already explained.
- Ability to rustle a living off of the land.
- Generally good calving ease, although this has declined somewhat.
- Vigorous calves.
- Mothering ability.
- Public perception of quality.
- Premium prices for black hides at sale barns.
- Extreme variability in many characteristics, including health, size, temperament, feed efficiency, and calving ease.
- Possible tendency to be harder on fences than more easygoing breeds.
- Dislike of heat (not a problem in Red Angus).
- Beef too heavily marbled for those who prefer lean meat.
- Bland flavor of the beef.