The long, colorful history of the Texas Longhorn begins in Africa, the home of the Moors. In 711, the Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula, bringing much of their culture with them, including their scientific knowledge and their agricultural practices. They also brought cattle, which crossed and recrossed with the native Spanish cattle many times over the years. The resulting descendants made useful oxen which could be readily trained to voice commands. No wonder, then, that everywhere the Spaniards went the cattle went, too.
First the Spanish cattle went to the Canary Islands, which the Kingdom of Castile conquered after a long series of revolts occupying most of the 1400s. While stopping at the islands on his second trip to the New World, Columbus picked up several boatloads of cattle and took them along to populate the island of Hispaniola. From the Caribbean, the Spanish cattle were brought to Mexico and later to the border region of America by a number of explorers. As first the conquistadors and later the Spanish priests roamed across their new dominions, cattle escaped or were abandoned. Over time, they were crafted into a new breed by their surroundings. They grew leaner, tougher, and wilder. And they grew long horns.
The enterprising Americans who discovered these cattle in the early 1800s promptly recognized them as a potential source of wealth—theirs for the taking. Cattle drives began as early as 1836 and continued throughout the Civil War. But the glory days of the Texas Longhorn did not come until after the war. The ex-Confederates needed paying jobs, so they rounded up some of the millions of longhorns running free in Texas and drove them to the railhead at Abilene in 1867. What followed was the cattle drive era so often celebrated in story and song. An estimated 10 million longhorns were driven out of Texas, some of them stopping in the Flint Hills to fatten on bluestem grass, others going northward and westward to form breeding herds as far away as Canada. The cattle industry was a paying business, and books and pamphlets proclaiming the fact were published in large numbers.
This promotion may very well have ended the heyday of the Texas Longhorn. Many of these books were widely read in Britain and Scotland. Gentlemen ranchers poured into the American West. But most of them had no intention of using the rangy, scrubby longhorns which had built the cattle industry. The gentlemen ranchers were there to show those Americans how things ought to be done, so they brought “improved” breeds with them, most notably the Shorthorn, the Hereford, and the Angus. As it turned out, these British breeds, known for thick layers of backfat, were much better suited to supplying the tallow industry of the Industrial Revolution than the lean Texas Longhorn. By 1885, most of the longhorns in America had been crossbred to one of the three popular British breeds. By 1910, the Texas Longhorn was nearly extinct.
But there were still a few ranchers in Texas who had grown up with longhorns and knew that they were hardier and easier to care for than any of the “improved” cattle. Six cattlemen independently set to work building their own herds of Texas Longhorns. Another herd was established at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Cache, Oklahoma, in 1927, as well as a state herd in Texas in the early 1940s. From this handful of herds, the Texas Longhorn made a dramatic comeback.
In more recent years, a rising demand for lean beef has created an ideal niche for the Texas Longhorn to fill. Now the breed faces a new threat from its popularity. Many Texas Longhorn breeders emphasize raising cattle for the “total package”—which in this case means color, conformation, and horn length. To accomplish this purpose, longhorn ranchers have bred extensively to only one of the original bloodlines, the one considered best for show purposes. The other bloodlines are approaching extinction as unique identities, having been blended together to improve show qualities. So far, no unintended genetic consequences have come to light, but a few longtime ranchers question whether the breed can retain its hardiness in the face of feeding, vaccinations, and other modern management practices. Time alone will tell.
The Texas Longhorn is considered a beef breed, a favorite with some grassfed producers. But making lean steaks and hamburgers is just the beginning of what longhorns can do! They can clear land of weeds and brush, haul plows and chuckwagons, produce milk and cheese in homestead-suitable quantities, pose in the front pasture for pictures, attract interest in Western-themed events, carry a rider just like a horse (some people even use them to herd and cut other cattle), and provide beautiful horns and hides at the end of their lifespan.
Miniature Texas Longhorns, developed in recent years by selectively breeding the smallest purebred longhorns, are mostly just kept as pets. However, they are also excellent for conservation grazing purposes.
Although the Texas Longhorn of today is a docile, friendly breed, it still has strong survival instincts. When used to humans, it can be handled with ease and even trained to respond to voice commands. When handled infrequently, however, it will prove itself wild and stubborn.
Owners should be aware that there are a few temperamental longhorns out there, and that no Texas Longhorn likes dogs. Furthermore, this breed is extremely intelligent, which on a practical level means that it can think up all kinds of ways to get into trouble. Jumping fences is a prime example.
Texas Longhorns are renowned for their exceptional immune systems. They are resistant to most diseases, particularly those related to stress, and are not prone to structural breakdowns.
Having long horns does not come without risks. Sometimes longhorns get their heads caught in hay racks, then panic, struggle, and break a horn. This is extremely painful and can lead to a serious infection. Owners should avoid using any equipment or handling facilities that a Texas Longhorn can get caught in.
- Availability of standard-sized cattle.
- Higher stocking rates (especially with miniature longhorns).
- Exceptional parasite and disease resistance.
- Ability to ward off predators.
- Adaptability to extremes of either heat or cold.
- Ability to thrive on grass alone.
- Liking for invasive weeds.
- Exceptional longevity; lifespans of 20 to 30 years common.
- Excellent fertility.
- Superior calving ease.
- Calf vigor.
- Excellent mothering instincts.
- Marked versatility (standard size only).
- Lean beef.
- Good flavor.
- High levels of hybrid vigor when crossbred.
- Small supply of miniatures.
- High prices.
- Danger and difficulty of handling cattle with long horns.
- Ability as an escape artist.
- Lower yields of beef than more conventional breeds.
- Exceptionally lean beef can be easy to overcook.
- Very poor prices at sale barns.
The Roots of Cattle Driving
Part one of our own series on how the famous cattle drives of the American West came about.
More about the breed from the perspective of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma.