The Hereford, affectionately known as the Whiteface, is one of those old British beef breeds that were somewhat modified during the Industrial Revolution to meet the needs of a growing population. 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 it was primarily a draft animal, although surplus calves and oxen past their prime were used for beef.
But the history of the Hereford as we know it began sometime around 1742. Herefordshire livestock breeders recognized that the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. As populations grew and congregated around cities, hungry workers began clamoring for beef. But nowhere did the cattlemen see a breed that would quite fit the bill. They felt that a good beef breed should be able to live on native grasses with minimal inputs and still gain weight quickly. Accordingly, they began breeding their old-fashioned Hereford draft cattle for beef production. By the end of the 1700s, they had succeeded. The Hereford was an established breed, rapidly growing in esteem outside of its native 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, though the New England states were already paving the way. 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, 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—not a very far-sighted breeding program!
Hereford breeders saw their chance and began promoting their cattle heavily at shows and exhibitions. Cattlemen across the nation agreed that here was a breed with potential, and in the 1880s over 3,500 head of Herefords were imported to America. In short order the Hereford was the number one beef breed in both Canada and the United States.
This trend lasted until around the 1960s. By then, tallow was no longer a highly sought-after product in America. Consumers were disgusted with the large quantities of waste fat contaminating their steaks and began to demand leaner beef—and more of it. Feedlots demanded cattle that would efficiently convert grain to muscle. This essentially meant that an easy-keeping animal such as the Hereford with the ability to flesh quickly and then put on a layer of backfat for use in hard times was out of the question; it would rapidly become obese under feedlot conditions. In the 1970s quarantines were overcome and a wave of massive, lean “exotic” breeds from Continental Europe overspread the nation. The Hereford could not compete.
Breeders set to work to redeem the situation. The modern Hereford arose—a longer, taller animal that performed well in the feedlot. 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 which damaged the reputation of the breed. Many Hereford breeders have caught on, however, and are working 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.
As Hereford raisers worked to adapt to changing markets beginning in the 1990s, a new variety of black Hereford was developed specifically for breeding Black Baldies. A red Hereford, the animal typically used to make these crossbred calves, will occasionally have “Red Baldy” offspring, which do not reap premiums at the sale barn. A black-colored Hereford, however, will have Black Baldies every time.
Another recent milestone for Hereford producers was the creation of the Certified Hereford Beef (CHB) program, patterned after the highly successful Certified Angus Beef program. So far the CHB program appears to be financially successful, and the breed as a whole is making a comeback across the country. 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.
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.
- 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).