The Hereford, affectionately known as the Whiteface, is probably the descendant of a cross between the large black cattle of the Welsh and the small red cattle of the Britons of the Roman times. The original Herefords existed as early as the 1600s in Herefordshire, England. In that day they were primarily draft animals, although surplus calves and oxen past their prime were consumed. Herefords were not specialized for beef until around 1742, when the Industrial Revolution increased the demand for meat in Great Britain.
The first Herefords in America were imported in 1817 by the famous statesman Henry Clay of Kentucky. These cattle interested many Americans, but the Industrial Revolution had not yet begun on our shores. A specialized beef breed was of somewhat limited use, and Clay crossed his Herefords with the dual-purpose Shorthorn in an effort to avoid inbreeding. In 1840, however, William H. Sotham and Erastus Corning of Albany, New York, established a purebred herd of 22 Herefords. This time the cattle maintained their foothold in America and were used to feed swelling population centers on the East Coast as the Industrial Revolution dawned in New England. More importations followed, and slowly the Hereford expanded across the growing nation.
The end of the Civil War marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in most of America. It also marked the beginning of a Hereford-dominated beef cattle market. Texas Longhorns filled the demand for beef immediately after the Civil War simply because there were so many of them available so cheaply, but they could not satisfy the flourishing tallow industry. Tallow was a critical product in that day because it had so many uses ranging from soaps to candles to lubricants. The Texas Longhorn was too lean to produce much tallow, and in the haste to drive well-fleshed beef steers up to the railheads the leanest, toughest cattle were typically left behind on the range to breed the next generation of calves. Hereford breeders saw their chance and began promoting their cattle heavily at shows and exhibitions. In the 1880s, over 3,500 head of Herefords were imported to America. In short order, the easy-keeping Hereford was the number one beef breed in both Canada and the United States.
This trend lasted until around the 1960s, when consumers demanded leaner beef and feedlots demanded cattle that would more efficiently convert grain to muscle. In the 1970s, a wave of massive, lean Continental breeds that would not grow obese in the feedlot overspread the nation. To compete, seedstock producers created the modern Hereford—a longer, taller animal that would not fatten quite so readily. Of course, not everyone agreed that this was the right direction in which to take the breed, and the miniature Hereford was created in protest. A few far-sighted breeders also hung on to their mid-sized classic Herefords, predicting that breeding for larger frame sizes would have serious repercussions, particularly in the areas of fertility and overall soundness. They were right. The bigger Herefords had a variety of health, fertility, and occasionally temperament problems that damaged the reputation of the breed for a time.
But many Hereford breeders eventually caught on and worked hard to bring back the hardiness and excellent reproductive capabilities of the old cattle. Part of the impetus to do so came from a new source of competition—the Angus, a smaller breed historically known for fertility and resilience. Additional efforts to create a more marketable breed produced the Black Hereford, developed in the 1990s for breeding Black Baldies without the occasional “Red Baldy” offspring sometimes seen in Angus x Hereford matings. The recent development of the Certified Hereford Beef program may also have contributed to the Hereford’s comeback.
The classic red Hereford is currently the second most popular breed in the nation, partly because of its proven versatility in crossbreeding as well as its other desirable characteristics, such as docility and high-quality beef. The newer black Hereford is also increasing in numbers on commercial operations, while miniature Herefords are becoming popular for small acreages.
The Hereford is one of the most widely used beef breeds worldwide and is especially favored in tough range conditions. However, it is mostly used in crossbreeding. Many well-regarded composite breeds have Hereford in their ancestry, and of course the Black Baldy is living proof that the Hereford has much to offer. The reliable Whiteface can even be crossed with a dairy breed to produce good beef calves.
In some parts of Canada, the Hereford doubles as a draft ox. Miniature Herefords can also make good pets although, like their larger counterparts, their primary use is beef.
A final, frequently overlooked use for the Hereford is crossbreeding with a dairy breed to produce a family milk cow. The Hereford element of the cross will ensure good disposition without lowering the milk production too much for homestead use.
Herefords are renowned for their easygoing dispositions. They adapt readily to the presence of people at a young age and have very good manners—usually. Some of them, however, would prefer to act more like big dogs than cattle and do pose a bit of a safety risk to anyone who is willing to pet them! Even bulls, though alert, are quiet and respectful.
It is important to purchase Herefords from a reputable source because there are still some bloodlines with health issues such as prolapse and arthritis. Another factor to consider is the white pigment, which is prone to sunburn. Many responsible breeders have gone to great lengths to address these issues, however. A well-bred Hereford will be sound and healthy, and will have some red pigment on its udder and around its eyes to protect it from the sun.
One issue common to Herefords that is harder to breed out is pinkeye. While cattle that get pinkeye year after year should definitely be culled, occasional bouts of pinkeye in the herd may suggest that nutritional needs are not being met, making the animals more susceptible to both the disease and the flies that carry it. That said, choosing Herefords with some pigment around their eyes will help prevent pinkeye, as the flies seem to be particularly attracted to unpigmented areas.
- Availability (reds only).
- Extremely calm disposition, which is easy on both people and equipment.
- Suitability of miniature Herefords for small acreages.
- Great hardiness.
- Extreme heat and cold tolerance.
- Easy-keeping ability, especially in miniature Herefords.
- Suitability for grass-based operations.
- Early maturity.
- Great fertility.
- Calving ease in well-bred Herefords.
- Strong mothering instinct.
- Fast growth on few inputs.
- Ability to finish well on grass alone.
- High yield, particularly of valuable cuts.
- Miniatures sized just right to feed a small family.
- Great taste and tenderness.
- Crossbred offspring highly regarded at sale barns.
- Scarcity of black Herefords at the current time.
- Wide variability in soundness, although this is improving.
- Expense of really good breeding animals.
- Tendency to get too fat unless kept on a strictly grass-based diet.
- Purebreds sometimes docked at sale barns for red color and for horns (a polled variety does exist).
Choosing a Breed of Cattle
Is the Hereford right for you? This book will help you assess your five needs and make that decision. Includes a brief profile of the Hereford breed. Free sample pages are available here.