Shorthorns have found niches in crossbreeding programs, and the milking type has won a place on grass-based dairy farms across the country.


Photo courtesy of USDA ARS

Short-horned cattle have existed in Great Britain since at least the time of the Romans. The Shorthorn breed as we know it, however, dates back to the 1700s, when cattle owners in northeastern England took the native stock in hand and began selective breeding. These early breeders mainly raised dual-purpose cattle, which in this case meant reliable dairy cows and calves that would eventually be fat enough to slaughter after finishing on ample grain rations.

The next step came around 1783, when Charles Colling bought four cows with an unusually beefy build. At the same time, his brother Robert had discovered a bull that produced impressive offspring. The two set to work to study breeding methods from Robert Bakewell of English Longhorn fame and soon achieved a truly dual-purpose Shorthorn, one that was not only a good milker, but that grew fast and produced higher yields of beef.

Other breeders continued the work of the Colling brothers, some preferring to focus on dairy qualities, others developing the Shorthorn’s beef potential. In general, however, the breed remained dual-purpose, and it was in this form that it first arrived in Jamestown in 1783. As the new nation grew, the dual-purpose Shorthorn (then called the Durham) spread with the pioneers. Settlers brought their favorite milk cows with them to their new homes, while trusty oxen pulled wagons westward.

But in the 1850s some of the settlers of the Midwest began to import a beef type of Shorthorn from Scotland. It was one of the first breeds of cattle used in an attempt to add a little more meat and tallow to the Texas Longhorn’s bony frame. Soon, however, the Scotch Shorthorn was recognized as a valuable animal in its own right, and quickly became the nation’s top beef breed.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, however, the hardier Hereford came to the forefront, as did the Angus. Breeders of beef-type Shorthorns developed a polled variety and intensified their selection practices, hoping to compete. This raised concerns among breeders of the dairy-type animals, and in 1948 the two varieties were separated into separate breeds: the Shorthorn and the Milking Shorthorn.

But the Milking Shorthorn soon left its dual-purpose roots, as well. Under pressure from the rising popularity of the Holstein, breeders began introducing blood from a variety of high-producing dairy breeds, most notably the Red and White, an offshoot of the Holstein. It has been estimated that most Milking Shorthorns today actually have 50% or more Holstein parentage. The remnant of the original Milking Shorthorn population, without Holstein influence, is today known as the Heritage Shorthorn, or Native Shorthorn.

Both the Shorthorn and the Milking Shorthorn have enjoyed better popularity in recent times. They have found niches in crossbreeding programs, and the dairy variety has won a place on grass-based dairy farms across the country. The Heritage Shorthorn, however, is critically rare.


The beef-type Shorthorn has two main purposes: beef and crossbreeding with other beef breeds for increased hybrid vigor.

The Milking Shorthorn can make a good beef animal, too, as well as serving as a dairy cow or a draft ox. In the dairy world, it is a good choice for those interested in making cheese.

The Heritage Shorthorn tends to truly excel in the dual-purpose arena, making it an excellent choice for a grassfed dairy business that produces meaty beef calves on the side. It is also suitable for draft purposes.


Shorthorns of all types are slow-moving, mild-mannered animals. Furthermore, they are fairly trainable, which helps them adapt readily to the daily farm routine or to draft work.



Unfortunately, both Beef and Milking Shorthorns carry a number of genetic defects. One of the most dreaded is tibial hemimelia, a condition in which calves are born with deformed skulls, twisted legs, and no shin bones. Another difficulty is pulmonary hypoplasia, or incomplete development of the lungs. White Shorthorns are prone to yet another defect that renders them sterile.

Other health issues besides genetic defects include pinkeye, a chronic wasting disease known as Johne’s disease, and a number of hoof problems (usually not a problem in cattle raised on forage-based diets).

The Heritage Shorthorn, on the other hand, remains a healthy, hardy cattle breed. Because it has not been influenced by Holstein genetics and has not been selected for production extremes, it has fewer genetic defects and soundness problems than its relatives. This type is noted for its long lifespan.


  • Wide range of bloodlines to fit every purpose.
  • Adaptability to cool and temperate climates.
  • Ability to thrive on forage alone (heritage type).
  • Longevity (beef and heritage types).
  • Early maturity.
  • Excellent fertility (beef and heritage types).
  • Calving ease.
  • Calf vigor.
  • Large quantities of milk (milk type primarily, but also some heritage individuals).
  • High protein-to-fat ratio of dairy products.
  • Rapid growth.
  • Exceptionally tender meat on grass alone.
  • Rich beef flavor.
  • Trainable disposition.
  • Muscular draft oxen.


  • Genetic defects (beef and milking types).
  • Poor hardiness in many of the modern bloodlines (beef and milking types).
  • Poor performance on fescue pastures.
  • Unsuitability for extremely hot climates
  • Obesity when fed grain.
  • Unusual beef texture.
  • Poor prices for whites and roans at sale barns.
  • Low hybrid vigor of Milking Shorthorn crosses due to extensive Holstein influence.

Helpful Resource

Choosing a Breed of Cattle

Choosing a Breed of Cattle
Is the Shorthorn right for you? This book will help you assess your five needs and make that decision. Includes a brief profile of the Shorthorn breed. Free sample pages are available here.

Complete Series

Cattle Breeds

Cattle Breeds