As mentioned in the last post of this series, classifying cattle breeds by geographic origin is useful to the prospective cattle owner, as breeds were often developed to adapt to very specific environments.
The six major categories of cattle in the United States, grouped by geographic origin, are as follows:
The American category, for our purposes, refers to the breeds developed on our continent by blending breeds primarily of British origin into landraces. Examples include the Lineback and the Randall of the United States, but also the Canadienne.
These breeds were essential to the pioneers for their versatility and low maintenance requirements. American cattle were expected to forage for their own living and raise a calf without assistance, all while milking steadily. Surplus steer calves were typically trained as oxen, while retired oxen often served as beef.
American breeds tend to be rare today, as specialization became the norm after World War II, but for the most part they still retain the traits that made them valuable to old-time homesteaders.
Characteristics of American breeds include the following:
- Small size.
- Variable appearance.
- Adaptation to very specific environments.
- Low maintenance requirements.
- Moderate milk production.
- High milk components.
- Flavorful beef.
Most American breeds today are kept by small-scale farmers and homesteaders for a combination of milk, meat, and draft work.
Spanish-American cattle were cattle of Moorish descent brought to the Americas by the conquistadors for beef and draft purposes. As the conquistadors explored and established missions across the Americas, they frequently lost or abandoned cattle. Only the hardiest survived in the wild to produce offspring. Several populations were re-domesticated and developed into distinct breeds. The Texas Longhorn is the iconic Spanish-American breed, but this group also includes the Corriente, the Pineywoods, and the Florida Cracker.
The survival traits that enabled the Spanish-American breeds to thrive on their own are still evident today. They are typically lean, athletic cattle with horns for defense and a strong instinct to rustle their own forage and protect their young. They display excellent resistance to heat, humidity, parasites, and disease. However, these days most Spanish-American breeds have far better dispositions than their feral ancestors did!
Characteristics of Spanish-American cattle include:
- Variable color.
- Heat tolerance.
- Resistance to disease and parasites.
- Low maintenance requirements.
- Calving ease.
- Strong mothering instincts.
- Exceptional longevity.
- Low milk production.
- Very lean beef.
Today, the Spanish-American breeds are primarily used for grassfed beef and rodeo purposes. Some individuals and bloodlines still have the trainability for draft purposes that would have characterized their ancestors.
Also of importance globally is the African population of cattle known as the sanga. The origins of this group are somewhat in debate, but it is generally believed that they are the offspring of an ancient cross between the taurine and indicine subspecies.
Whatever their origin, the African breeds are even today of tremendous importance in their homeland, largely being used for dairy purposes and for the display of wealth and status. (Among nomadic tribes, beef is eaten only for ceremonial purposes.) Although there are numerous sanga breeds, very few exist in a pure state in America. The Ankole Watusi is probably the best known, but there is also a breed called the Mashona used in some commercial beef operations.
Characteristics of African sanga breeds include:
- Moderate size.
- Small hump.
- Extreme heat resistance.
- Resistance to parasites and diseases.
- Lean beef.
On the whole, the sanga cattle in America probably display the greatest potential in the crossbred beef arena, particularly in hot climates. However, the Ankole Watusi is largely kept as a pet or novelty.