Classifying Cattle Breeds: Paradigm



When it comes to classifying cattle breeds, paradigm refers to the mindset that went into the breed’s creation and subsequent development.

Dutch Belted

Dutch Belted
Dutch Belteds, a heritage breed

When it comes to classifying cattle breeds, paradigm refers to the mindset that went into the breed’s creation and subsequent development. This is important, because there was something of a seismic shift in the way cattle were bred after the Industrial Revolution.


Heritage breeds not only existed before the days of industrial agriculture, but they changed little in response to the pressures of modernization.

Most heritage breeds were developed to meet the needs of very specific environments. They were often raised with minimal supervision, developing as low-maintenance landraces, although some were standardized to improve conformation and production traits. Many were triple-purpose milk, meat, and draft animals, although this varied from place to place.

While the population numbers of heritage breeds often fell perilously after World War II, many were preserved either by associations of dedicated breeders or by a few contrarian individuals.

There are many heritage cattle breeds in America today, ranging from the Pineywoods of the United States to the Dexter of Ireland to the Dutch Belted of Continental Europe.

Characteristics of heritage cattle breeds generally include:

  • Relative scarcity.
  • Distinctive appearance.
  • Intelligence.
  • Suitability for low-input systems.
  • Structural soundness.
  • Vigorous health.
  • Relatively slow growth.
  • Longevity.
  • Ability to reproduce with minimal intervention.
  • Versatility.
  • High levels of milk components.
  • Flavorful beef.
  • Low prices at sale barns.

Heritage breeds are obviously well suited to homesteads and hobby farms, where high production levels are not required. However, many heritage breeds can also have a valuable place on farms and ranches that rely on direct marketing rather than commodity channels due to their low input requirements and quality meat and milk.


Angus, a modern breed

Modern breeds were developed to meet the needs of the modern commodity-based system of agriculture. Many were the product of selective breeding of popular breeds in existence at the time of the Industrial Revolution, but some are more recent composites. In either case, modern breeds evolved to meet the demands of rapidly growing urban populations.

Commodity cattle, whether beef or dairy, have only two major criteria they must meet:

  • Uniformity.
  • High production levels.

The iconic modern cattle breeds today are the Holstein in the dairy world and the Angus in the beef world.

Characteristics of modern breeds generally include:

  • Availability.
  • Uniform appearance.
  • Docility.
  • Comparatively high maintenance requirements.
  • Fast growth.
  • Specialization.
  • High milk production levels.
  • Bland beef flavor.
  • High prices at sale barns.

As you might expect, modern breeds are generally the best fit for commodity production, whether that is beef or dairy.

A Final Note

To recap, the four major ways of classifying cattle breeds are as follows:

Every group of cattle has its pros and cons. Furthermore, every group was developed with a specific purpose and environment in mind. When choosing a breed of cattle, it is best to select one that closely matches your needs and circumstances in the following areas:

  • Purpose.
  • Scale.
  • Environment.
  • Marketing plan.
  • Personal preference.

Helpful Resource

Choosing a Breed of Cattle

Choosing a Breed of Cattle
Are heritage or modern cattle right for you? This book offers more information and tips for choosing, along with breed profiles. Free sample pages are available.

Complete Series

Classifying Cattle Breeds: Introduction

Classifying Cattle Breeds