There are many way to categorize cattle breeds—beef and dairy, standard and miniature, commercial and heritage, Bos taurus taurus and Bos taurus indicus. One classification that is frequently used to describe beef breeds is British versus Continental.
The names are rather self-explanatory. British breeds come from the United Kingdom, while Continental breeds come from Continental Europe. But there is more here than meets the eye. British and Continental breeds were developed under vastly different circumstances, giving each type unique characteristics suited to different applications.
America has long had an association with the British Isles, so it was only natural that British cattle breeds predominated on our shores for many years. The foundation of our British cattle population was imported beginning in the late 1700s. These importations continued well into the following century. The vast majority of beef herds in America today are still built on British breeds.
Examples of British breeds include:
While each breed is slightly different, most British breeds share the following characteristics:
- Small size.
- Hardiness in cold climates.
- Early maturity.
- Calving ease.
- High percentage of waste at slaughter.
- Marbled beef.
- Meat tenderness.
British breeds have found niches in both commercial and alternative agriculture due to their adaptability. Although they dominate the industry sale barns, they are also typically the breeds of choice for grassfed beef production. A few of the breeds, such as the Devon, can be used as all-around homestead cattle, providing beef, milk, and draft power for small farms.
Although experiments were made with Continental breeds in the early 1900s, they did not become popular in the United States until the late 1960s and early 1970s, hence their other name—“exotic breeds.” These cattle were costly and difficult to obtain at first, so the process of establishing an American population was expedited by upgrading imports with British cattle already living on our shores. Most Continental breeds were considered purebred after four or five generations of upgrading. They left their mark on the beef industry by promoting the breeding of large-framed cattle, but this trend has abated somewhat in recent years along with the use of Continental genetics.
Examples of Continental breeds include:
- Belgian Blue.
- Maine Anjou.
Continental breeds vary widely, but they tend to share a few traits:
- Large size.
- Late maturity.
- Rapid weight gain on feed.
- Large yield of beef.
- Low percentage of waste at slaughter.
- Lean beef.
While quite a few of the Continental breeds have potential as dual-purpose beef and dairy animals, they are rarely used in this way in America. One of the most important roles of Continental cattle in the United States is crossbreeding with British breeds to create more desirable beef animals.
British/Continental Crossbred Cattle
The most common goal in crossing British and Continental cattle is to produce beef calves that retain the marbling of the former type, but with the bigger, more muscular package associated with the latter type.
Unfortunately, introducing the positive traits of Continental cattle into a herd can also introduce negative characteristics. In particular, using a Continental bull on a British cow can lead to the conception of a calf far too large for the cow to give birth to unassisted.
These crossbred cattle need plenty of grain to reach their full potential, so they are more commonly found in the feedlot than in a grassfed operation.