Classifying Cattle Breeds: Geographic Origin Part 1



The native homeland of a given breed is important when choosing a breed of cattle, as it indicates the environment in which the breed was developed to thrive.


Herefords, a British breed

We have already explored several methods of classifying cattle breeds in ways that are useful to cattle owners, current and prospective. Purpose is a very obvious method. Genetic background is also of key importance.

Now we come to geographical origin. The native homeland of a given breed is important when choosing a breed of cattle, as it indicates the environment in which the breed was developed to thrive.

Based on geography, there are six major groups of cattle in the United States:


British cattle breeds include all cattle from any part of the United Kingdom, including England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and the surrounding islands. These cattle are distinct from those of the rest of Europe due to their geographical isolation. British breeds were introduced to the United States beginning in the colonial period and continuing into the 1800s and sometimes even longer.

Furthermore, they were developed to survive and thrive in a relatively cool, wet climate. These breeds often display a high degree of hardiness and a small to moderate body size, necessary for making it through the winter efficiently. Additional adaptations to the cold include either rapid fattening ability (e.g., the Hereford) or a long, thick coat (e.g., the Highland).

For centuries, British breeds were largely dual-purpose milk and meat animals. However, England was among the earliest nations of the world to be impacted by the Industrial Revolution, which early on led to the specialization of cattle into distinct beef and dairy breeds. While preservation efforts have retained some of the old dual-purpose breeds and bloodlines, such as the Heritage Shorthorn, in the United States most British cattle are specialized beef breeds, most notably the Angus and the Hereford. The high-producing Holstein has largely supplanted British dairy breeds, such as the Jersey and the Guernsey, for commercial production.

Common characteristics of British cattle breeds include the following:

  • Small size.
  • Docility.
  • Hardiness in cold climates.
  • Early maturity.
  • Fertility.
  • Calving ease.
  • High percentage of milk components.
  • High percentage of waste at slaughter.
  • Tender, marbled beef.

The versatility of British cattle breeds suits them to just about any type of production system that can be imagined. In the beef world, they dominate not only the sale barns but also the grassfed niche. In dairy production, they make a good showing in commercial dairy farming, but really shine in organic and grass-based production. On the homestead, the dual-purpose British breeds tend to be among the most popular.


Holstein, a Continental breed

Continental cattle breeds are those hailing from Continental Europe, such as the Chianina and the Limousin. These breeds arrived in the United States comparatively late on the scene, as they were largely “discovered” by American servicemen during the world wars. Even at that, they were slow to take hold in our country due to import restrictions. Much of the Continental cattle population in the United States today includes some Angus genetics, as upgrading was extensively used to establish these breeds.

The Continental breeds were often used for either draft or dairy purposes in their native lands. As a consequence, big, muscular cattle with high milking potential were preferred. While these cattle required a fair degree of feeding to reach their full potential, this was not much of a hardship, as their native pastures were frequently quite lush and there was often good agricultural potential for growing cattle feed, as well.

Ironically, however, it was for beef purposes that the Continental breeds were introduced to the United States. American soldiers from the Midwest readily saw the potential of these large cattle to produce high yields of lean beef. (The Holstein is an exception, being a Continental breed specialized for dairy production.)

But Continental cattle are typically not raised for beef in a purebred state, as they have a number of disadvantages. For one thing, they require a great deal of grain to reach their full size, and they also do not marble. For another thing, they have a number of characteristics that can be a headache to the cattle producer, ranging from calving problems to poor disposition.

Characteristics common to Continental breeds include:

  • Large size.
  • High-strung temperament.
  • High maintenance requirements.
  • Late maturity.
  • Calving problems.
  • High milk yields.
  • Low milk components.
  • Rapid weight gain on feed.
  • Large carcass.
  • Low percentage of waste at slaughter.
  • Lean beef.

In the United States, Continental cattle are primarily used for crossbreeding with British breeds, most notably the Angus, to produce fast-gaining calves with the added advantage of marbling for feedlot production. The Holstein is the only Continental dairy breed of note in America, but it has come to dominate the dairy industry.


Brahman, an Indicine breed

The term “Indicine cattle” refers to the zebu of India and other tropical countries of Asia and Africa. While there are numerous zebu breeds worldwide, the Brahman, developed in the United States from several zebu strains, is the only pure zebu breed of significance in our country. However, we will include in this category the numerous composite breeds developed with Brahman influence, such as the Beefmaster and the Santa Gertrudis.

In their native countries, Indicine breeds are typically raised as heat-tolerant draft and dairy cattle, rarely ever being eaten. In America, however, the Brahman and related breeds are generally considered beef cattle, although they are typically crossbred with British breeds to combat the natural toughness of the meat.

Indicine breeds are largely raised in the southern United States thanks to their extreme tolerance of heat, humidity, parasites, and poor-quality pastures. Elsewhere the Indicine breeds tend to sell at a discount. They breed back slowly, produce relatively unpalatable beef, and can have difficult dispositions. Crossbreeding improves, but does not entirely eliminate, these difficulties.

Characteristics of Indicine cattle include the following:

  • Humps.
  • Big ears.
  • Baggy skin.
  • Large size.
  • Wary disposition.
  • Exceptional adaptation to heat.
  • Exceptional resistance to parasites and diseases.
  • Resistance to fescue toxicosis.
  • Low maintenance requirements.
  • Low fertility.
  • Longevity.
  • Low milk production.
  • Tough beef.

Indicine cattle are primarily used in the South to add heat tolerance and general hardiness to British beef cattle.

Helpful Resources

Beef Cattle Talk: A Glosssary
Help with some of the technical terms in this post.

The Two Subspecies of Cattle
More about taurine versus indicine cattle.

British and Continental Cattle Breeds
Further comparison of these two groups of cattle.

Choosing a Breed of Cattle

Choosing a Breed of Cattle
More information for deciding if British, Continental, or Indicine cattle are right for you, along with breed profiles. Free sample pages are available for preview.