Tag Archives: Breeding

Getting Started with Livestock Part 4: Breed

Getting Started with Livestock Part 4: BreedIf you’ve looked into breed options at all, you’re probably bewildered. What are the differences between all these breeds? How do you narrow it down to just one or two?

These are not always easy questions to answer. For one thing, it will depend on your particular set of circumstances. For another thing, no two individuals within a breed are exactly the same.

Defining Your Expectations

The best place to start is with a list of characteristics you definitely want and definitely don’t want in your chosen livestock. To narrow your options down, ask yourself these questions:

  • What am I raising this animal for? Eggs? Milk? Meat? Fiber?
  • What type of environment will my animals need to adapt to?
  • What kind of temperament will I best be able to get along with?
  • What is my price range?
  • What breeds are readily available in my area?
  • What breeds interest me the most?

Most prospective homesteaders will probably want to look for animals that are disease-resistant, parasite-resistant, and suitable for low-input pasture-based production. In Kansas, don’t forget to factor in the climatic extremes! If you are selling either animals or animal products, you may also want to think about traits that might give you a marketing advantage (popular, heritage, rare, health benefits, etc.).

Doing Your Research

Once you know what you are looking for, choosing a breed largely boils down to extensive research. Every breed has pros and cons, and every breed was developed to fit a particular set of conditions and expectations. The right breed for you will typically be a breed developed for essentially the same environment and production system you are dealing with.

What about crossbreeds and assorted mongrels? These may work great for you, or they may not. Again, it depends on your circumstances and the nature of the individual beast. A good rule of thumb is that crossbred animals are usually a great fit for production systems (hybrid vigor) and a poor fit for breeding systems (inconsistency). But this is a very general principle—the applications and pitfalls of crossbreeding are explained in more depth in our Breeding Toolbox series.

Ready to check out some of your options? Arm yourself with your laundry list, and spend some time with one of our breed guides. Also be sure to check out some of our other online resources for posts, books, and links relevant to your species of interest:

If you find a breed or several breeds that meet your requirements, you’re well on your way to having a great country adventure. Have fun!

Helpful Resources

Breeds of Livestock
An Oklahoma State University website featuring the histories and characteristics of all types of livestock.

Heritage Livestock Breeds Comparison Charts
A free online resource covering all types of heritage-breed livestock.

Choosing a Breed of CattleChoosing a Breed of Cattle
This book will walk you through the process of assessing your five needs, deciding whether purebred or crossbred cattle are right for you, and choosing from 40 beef, dairy, and dual-purpose breeds. More information and free sample pages are available for Choosing a Breed of Cattle.

Cattle BreedsCattle Breeds
Our online guide to popular and heritage cattle breeds, covering history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons.

Horse & Donkey BreedsHorse & Donkey Breeds
Our online guide to popular and heritage equines, covering history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons.

Goat BreedsGoat Breeds
Our online guide to popular and heritage goat breeds, covering history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons.

Chicken BreedsChicken Breeds
Our online guide to popular and heritage goat breeds, covering history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons.

Murray McMurray Chick Selector
This handy tool lets you filter chicken breeds by egg production, meat production, heat tolerance, cold tolerance, disposition, free-range suitability, and much more.

Choosing a Breed of Cattle

Choosing a Breed of Cattle

We are excited to announce the release of a new book—Choosing a Breed of Cattle: 5 Needs and 40 Breeds for Selecting Cattle That Fit Your Purpose by Michelle Lindsey!

When you start by assessing the five needs of every future cattle owner, choosing between the many breeds of cattle available today suddenly becomes much easier. This book will walk you through the process of defining your expectations and then arm you with key information on 40 common cattle breeds, including beef, dairy, and multipurpose types.

With a little research, you will know:

  • Whether to choose purebred or crossbred cattle.
  • What genetic, geographical, and historical types of cattle are best suited to your purpose.
  • Which beef, dairy, or dual-purpose breeds are most likely to succeed on your homestead, farm, or ranch, no matter how big or small.

Once you have picked a few favorite breeds, we’ll even show you where to go to find more information.

Choosing a Breed of Cattle is the first book in our new series—Practical Country Living. The Practical Country Living series will offer country living enthusiasts the information they need to master new skills quickly. By the time you have finished one of our concise Practical Country Living books, you should be ready to take your newly acquired knowledge into the real world, whatever your area of interest.

More information on Choosing a Breed of Cattle is available here, along with free sample pages.

Beef Tenderness and the Shear Force Test

Beef Tenderness and the Shear Force TestTenderness is critical to the meat-eating experience—nobody enjoys sinking their teeth into a tough steak.

A tried-and-true method of testing beef tenderness is the plain old taste test. These days, however, there are ways to objectively measure the precise tenderness of a cut of beef.

The Warner-Bratzler Shear Force Test

The Warner-Bratzler shear force test is named for the two men who worked together to create it. Kenneth F. Warner, a USDA research scientist, invented the test equipment in 1928. Lyman J. Bratzler, a K-State graduate, standardized the equipment and the test procedure a few years later.

The test is very simple. A one-inch-thick steak is collected from the 12th rib of the animal to be tested and is trimmed free of fat and bone. The steak is vacuum sealed and allowed to age for 14 days at temperatures at or just above freezing. After aging, the steak is then frozen for 14 days. Prior to testing, the steak is completely thawed in a refrigerator and broiled to medium doneness.

Once the cooked steak has cooled off, six to eight core samples, each half an inch (1.27 cm) in diameter, are collected for the test. The scientists performing the test measure the pounds or kilograms of force required to shear the cores completely in half using a steel blade specifically design to mimic the action of the human jaw. The mean for all the cores is considered the shear force for the animal.

On the Warner-Bratzler system, beef tenderloin typically has a shear force of around 5.7 lbs. (2.6 kg), while a top round steak has a shear force of around 11.7 lbs. (5.3 kg).

The Genetics of Tenderness

Tenderness is a heritable trait, and it is one that is heavily influenced by breed. Cattle breeds with the gene for double-muscling, such as the Belgian Blue, are extremely tender. At the other end of the spectrum, zebu breeds such as the Brahman tend to be on the tough side. Between the two extremes lie British breeds such as the Angus.

But there is typically some variation within each breed for the tenderness trait. Those seeking to improve the shear force test results of their cattle will do well to seek out bulls with bred-in tenderness genes. A sire’s genetic potential for tenderness can be determined through progeny testing. In the Brahman and Simmental breeds, a shear force EPD can also be used.

 Management Factors Affecting Tenderness

Of course, even the best beef genetics can be ruined by poor management. Tenderness starts with proper nutrition. Tenderness largely depends on intramuscular fat, not marbling. Marbling is only used as a measure of tenderness because it is typically associated with the presence of intramuscular fat, which is microscopic and nearly impossible to measure in the home kitchen. Intramuscular fat is contained in special fat cells that develop as cattle reach early adolescence. These cells must be filled if an animal is to produce tender beef, which means that the animal itself must be steadily gaining weight during the finishing process, whether it is finished on grain or grass. If the cattle lose weight while finishing, this is an indicator that the intramuscular fat levels have decreased and the meat has toughened. Steady weight gains require optimum nutrition, including adequate energy intake and properly balanced vitamin and mineral levels. While grain can fill up the fat cells faster than grass, it is entirely possible to produce tender beef on forage alone with proper planning.

Note that growth hormones do not increase beef tenderness—they simply increase muscle mass.

Younger animals are normally more tender than older animals, as they have had less time to develop connective tissue. However, there is a trade-off here, because younger animals also have had less time to deposit intramuscular fat. A beef animal that has reached the critical balance point between intramuscular fat and connective tissue is considered finished. This is where frame scoring comes into play—a large-framed animal grows slowly and takes much longer to finish than a small- or moderate-framed animal.

One of the most important management factors influencing beef tenderness is the procedure at the slaughter facility, as stress will cause adrenaline levels to spike and muscles to tense. Low-stress transport and a quick, humane kill are necessary for keeping meat at its most tender.

Even after slaughter, the beef carcass must still be handled properly to ensure tenderness. Aging is a key factor, as it allows natural enzymes to begin the process of softening up the muscle. Aging takes place at low temperatures to prevent problems with bacterial growth. The carcass is typically placed in a plastic bag during the aging process to avoid oxidation.

The final step of producing tender beef is left up to the consumer, and that is cooking. As beef is cooked to higher levels of doneness, it becomes steadily tougher. Intramuscular fat is required to keep a steak tender when cooked to well done. Very lean beef and low-grade cuts can still provide an enjoyable eating experience when slow cooked, as this gives the collagen holding the steak together time to melt.

Helpful Resource

Beef Cattle Talk: A Glossary
More information for those unfamiliar with some of the terms used in this post.

Basic Principles of Breeding Heirloom Vegetables

Basic Principles of Breeding Heirloom VegetablesThe world of heirloom vegetables is a fascinating one, full of unique colors and traditional flavors.

While saving seeds from heirloom plants can be as simple as collecting whatever is available, best results will be obtained from attention to good breeding practices. Proper selection of breeding stock will ensure generations of vigorous seeds that produce delicious harvests.


What’s Your Goal?

There are two main purposes for breeding heirloom vegetables:

  • To preserve a rare or historic plant variety.
  • To raise plants adapted to your unique situation.

It is important to determine your purpose right at the beginning, because each objective requires a different focus when selecting the plants that will produce the next generation of seed. Preserving a variety requires a conservative approach, taking steps to avoid altering the gene pool in any way. Raising adapted vegetable genetics requires a progressive approach, actively shaping the gene pool to meet your needs.


Preserving a Variety

If variety conservation is your goal, then your breeding philosophy must be to avoid altering the historic gene pool in any way. This can be surprisingly challenging, as there are many ways to inadvertently shift the genetics. The tendency of this shift will be toward plants that are adapted to your specific gardening conditions in the specific year that the parent plants were grown. While this adaptation process has advantages, it also has disadvantages—you may need different genetics in a different year, or you may wish to share seeds with gardeners with different growing conditions. Either way, a broad gene pool with a great deal of variation is desired for conservation purposes.

To maintain a broad genetic base, you must start by choosing a variety already well adapted to your conditions. A variety not suited to your environment or gardening practices will likely have a high mortality rate. The surviving plants will only be those with adapted genetics, thus altering the gene pool.

You will need to grow many plants in each generation to ensure a broad genetic base and avoid inbreeding problems. You may only need five plants for a healthy generation of self-pollinating species such as peppers, while tricky species prone to inbreeding like corn may require you to grow over 100 plants. Each plant must be nurtured to maturity and allowed to produce a crop of seeds if at all possible.

Culling must be kept to a bare minimum. Only cull the following plants:

  • Those that are clearly diseased and thus will likely spread infection to other plants.
  • Those that are not true to type and thus not representative examples of the variety.

To avoid inadvertently giving preference to some plants, equal amounts of seed should be saved from each individual plant.


Raising Adapted Plant Genetics

Heirloom vegetable varieties can easily be selected for better performance in your garden with no need for hybridizing. All you have to do is create your own strain within the variety.

A good way to start when developing a locally adapted strain is by making a list of characteristics that you want to see in your plants (for best results, start with only two or three traits max). Such characteristics might include:

  • Drought tolerance.
  • Pest or disease resistance.
  • Resistance to bolting.
  • High yields.
  • Uniform fruits.
  • Excellent flavor.

When choosing the parent plants, cull those that do not display the characteristics that you desire. Deliberately expose your plants to climatic vagaries to allow nature to sort out the best low-maintenance plant genetics (just be sure to allow them to recover in time to produce a healthy seed crop). Mark the most adapted plants with pieces of ribbon so that you can identify them when it is time to collect the seed. Favor exceptional plants when saving seeds—well-adapted plants will typically produce the most seed anyway.

However, be careful not to narrow your vegetable gene pool too quickly, or the plants may start to lose vigor due to inbreeding. If you select too aggressively, you may accidentally make your plants less adapted to years with unusual climatic conditions. There are several easy ways to keep the gene pool broad and healthy without sacrificing your objectives:

  • Start with a variety that has a great deal of genetic variation to begin with.
  • Raise numerous parent plants in each generation.
  • Include a few seeds from the original strain in every planting.


A Few Final Hints

To keep your motivation levels high, start simple and give yourself some leeway to learn about plant selection and seed saving. Begin with only one or two varieties, and choose those from species that are easy to work with. Plants that mostly self-pollinate are ideal. Some good plants to practice with include:

Keep good records. Mark your rows and label your bags and envelopes of seeds. This is particularly important if you grow more than one variety of the same species.

Most importantly, only grow plants that you enjoy. If you don’t like eating beets, don’t grow beets. If indeterminate tomatoes and pole beans are just too much hassle for you, it won’t matter that they have superior flavor. Trade them in for determinate tomatoes and bush beans—there are still plenty of tasty varieties of those plants out there!

Beef Cattle Talk: A Glosssary

Beef Cattle Talk: A GlossaryNo matter what type of cattle they raise and in what way, cattle producers speak a slightly different language than everyday American English. To the newbie, this peculiar vocabulary can be baffling.

Allow us to elucidate a few of the most common terms:


  • 3 in 1: A pregnant cow with a calf at her side.
  • AI: Short for artificial insemination.
  • All natural: Raised without antibiotics, steroids, or growth hormones.
  • Backgrounding: The process of growing a weaned calf to prepare it for finishing. The increase in size that results from backgrounding is primarily due to the development of bone and muscle, not fattening.
  • Base weight: The estimated net weight of a group of cattle on delivery day. Used to calculate final sales price.
  • Body condition score: A measure of the amount of flesh and fat an animal is carrying. Find out how it works here.
  • Broken mouth: A mouth that is starting to lose teeth.
  • Closed herd: A herd into which no outside breeding stock is ever introduced. A closed herd produces all of its own herd sires and replacement heifers.
  • Club calf: A calf bred for showing at 4-H or FFA shows. Eye appeal is a major factor in what makes a good club calf.
  • Composite: A breed formed by combining several other breeds at specific percentages. A more complete explanation can be found here.
  • Concentrate: Highly digestible feed high in energy but low in fiber.
  • Conformation: How well the physical appearance of an animal conforms to a standard, whether that is a formal written show standard or just the commonly accepted views of how cattle should be built for soundness and productivity. By extension, conformation has also come to refer simply to the physical appearance of the animal without any reference to a standard.
  • Corriente: Properly a specific breed descended from Spanish cattle. Sometimes also used to refer to nondescript roping cattle, particularly those of Mexican origin.
  • Cutability: How much lean, salable meat a carcass can produce relative to the amount of waste fat.
  • Dewlap: Loose folds of skin hanging from the bottom of the neck, indicative of zebu influence.
  • Double-muscling: Having a genetic mutation leading to uncontrolled muscle growth, evidenced by an odd, heavy-muscled appearance. Characteristic of the Belgian Blue breed.
  • Dry: Not lactating.
  • Dystocia: Calving difficulties.
  • Easy fleshing: Able to maintain or gain weight readily on only low-cost feed, particularly forage.
  • EPD: Expected progeny difference. How the offspring of a given sire will perform for a given trait compared to others of the same breed. A more complete explanation can be found here.
  • ET: Embryo transfer, not extraterrestrial. The process of removing embryos from a donor cow and implanting them into recipient cows. A technique used to maximize the genetic potential of a cow by enabling her to have more offspring than is naturally possible.
  • Exotic: Typically a Continental breed (see more here). Sometimes also applied to unusual bovines such as miniature cattle, bison, beefalo, or yaks.
  • Exposed: The cow in question was pastured with a bull. She might be pregnant, but there is no guarantee.
  • F1: Stands for “first filial generation.” The first generation of a cross.
  • Fancy: Exceptionally good eye appeal, conformation, and femininity. Also exceptionally expensive.
  • Feed conversion: Units of feed consumed relative to units of weight gained. Also referred to as “feed efficiency.”
  • Feeder calf: A calf that has been weaned but is not yet being finished. A rather loose term, but generally refers to older, larger calves that have already gone through the stocker phase and are now ready to go a feedlot.
  • Finishing: The final stage of feeding an animal destined for slaughter. Many cattle are finished on grain at a feedlot. Grass-finished cattle are finished on forage.
  • FOB: Free on board, or freight on board. The geographical place at which ownership of a group of cattle changes hands. Significant because the new owner is responsible for shipping costs after this point.
  • Frame score: An evaluation of the skeletal size of an animal based on hip height. Frame scores are related to both carcass weight and maintenance requirements. Read more here.
  • Freemartin: A heifer that was born twin to a bull calf. Most freemartins are infertile.
  • Gate cut: A method of equitably sorting cattle if a buyer is not taking the entire group. The cattle are placed in a corral and every third (or fourth or fifth or etc.) animal to come out of the alley goes to the buyer.
  • Genotype: The genetic makeup of an animal.
  • Green broke: Has had some halter training, but is not yet thoroughly trained.
  • Hanging weight: The weight of a beef carcass after the nonedible parts, such as head and organs, are removed.
  • Hard doer: Always in poor health and condition, regardless of management.
  • Harvest: Slaughter.
  • Heterosis: Hybrid vigor. The degree to which crossbred calves excel their purebred parents in performance traits.
  • Marbling: Intramuscular fat. Used to determine the USDA quality grade of a carcass.
  • Mastitis: Infection of the mammary glands.
  • Maternal traits: Traits that make a cow a good mother. Precisely which traits are considered maternal varies per producer, but the idea is that a cow with maternal ability is one that can consistently raise a hefty calf each year.
  • Maverick: An unbranded animal.
  • MiG: Management-intensive grazing. A system of matching animal nutritional needs to changing forage resources. Rotational grazing is a tool used in MiG, but MiG is far more than just rotational grazing. Read more here.
  • OCV: Official calfhood vaccinate. An animal that received a brucellosis vaccination as a calf, generally necessary to ship cattle across state lines.
  • Open: Not pregnant.
  • Pedigree: The family tree of an animal.
  • Phenotype: The visible animal and its performance traits, as distinct from its genetic background. A phenotype is influenced by genetics, but there can be environmental effects affecting the final product, and there might be genes with masked effects. Thus the difference between phenotype and genotype.
  • Polled: Hornless.
  • Post-legged: Having unusually straight back legs. A conformation defect that causes abnormal movement.
  • Prepotency: The ability of a bull to “stamp” his offspring so that they resemble him to a particularly marked degree. Usually seen in inbred bulls with many dominant genes paired together.
  • Progeny test: A method of estimating the genetic merit of a sire by evaluating the performance of his progeny.
  • Proven: Has had offspring. Hopefully good ones, but that depends on the honesty of the person saying it.
  • Reference sire: A bull with a known track record used as a benchmark in progeny testing.
  • Replacement heifer: A heifer that has been chosen to become a producing cow in the herd.
  • Running iron: A branding iron used to draw rather than stamp a brand. Illegal in some areas due to its longtime association with cattle rustlers.
  • Saddle iron: A short branding iron made be carried on the saddle. It does not have a handle, but instead is made to use any stick found along the trail.
  • Scurs: Bony hornlike growths attached to the skin of the head. Read more here.
  • Seedstock: Breeding animals sold as a genetic package as distinct from commercial animals sold for production purposes.
  • Shrink: The amount of weight an animal loses under stress.
  • Sickle-hocked: Having back legs bent at too sharp of an angle.
  • Sire summary: A record of the EPDs for current sires published by a national cattle evaluation program.
  • Slide: A method of adjusting the final sale price based on variation of the actual net weight of the cattle from their base weight.
  • Smooth mouth: A mouth without teeth.
  • Soggy: Deep-bodied, big-bellied, and in average to heavy condition. A sign of an easy-fleshing animal.
  • Springer: A cow or heifer expected to calve soon.
  • Stockers: Weaned cattle in a forage-based backgrounding program.
  • Synchronize: Treat cows or heifers with hormones to synchronize their estrous cycles. This is a convenience when using artificial insemination.
  • Terminal sire: A bull used to raise calves strictly for market, not breeding purposes.
  • Texas gate: A cattle guard.
  • Trim: Having a clean silhouette with no dewlap or other loose, hanging skin and flesh that might indicate zebu influence.
  • Upgrade: Increase the numbers of or introduce desired genes into a pure breed by introducing outside blood and breeding the crossbred offspring back to the desired parent breed. After several generations, the offspring become nearly pure. Read more here.
  • Yield grade: A 5-point scoring system used to measure cutability, with grade 1 being the highest yield of lean meat and grade 5 being the lowest.

The Broody Hen Versus the Incubator

The Broody Hen vs. the IncubatorInterested in hatching your own chicks from eggs? This can be a challenging project, but one that is extremely rewarding.

The first thing to consider is whether you will let an obliging broody hen tend the eggs, or whether you will need to purchase an incubator machine. There are advantages to both options, so you will need to determine what promises the best results in your situation.

The Broody Hen

Advantages of the broody hen include:

  • No special equipment required. All the hen needs is a nesting box where she can brood undisturbed and then a safe place to rear her chicks away from predators and hostile chickens. No incubator, no brooder. No additional cost.
  • Hands-off incubating. Incubating chicks requires constant attention to temperature, humidity, and egg turning. A hen will attend to all of these details with precision, and she will not be nonplussed if the power goes out.
  • Happy chicks. Newly hatched chicks are extremely calm when safely under the wing of their mother. Compare this to the incubator, where the new chick often thrashes around cheeping wildly in search of companions. Even if there is only one chick, it will still be quite content if it has a hen with it.
  • Chick training. New chicks have to be taught to eat and drink. A good broody hen will teach her chicks these skills herself.

The Incubator

Advantages of the incubator include:

  • Always ready. Whenever you’re in the mood to hatch some eggs, the incubator awaits. Broody hens go broody on their own timetable.
  • Large broods. An incubator makes it easier to hatch more chicks at once. Broody hens will often reject their nests if burdened with too many eggs.
  • Reliability. As long as you keep the temperature and humidity at the correct levels and turn eggs appropriately, the incubator is pretty much sure-fire. Many modern hens are too scatter-brained to stay on the nest.
  • Spectators welcome. Incubators typically have clear windows that allow onlookers to watch the progress of the hatch, great for science projects or just for the curious.
  • Chick safety. Unfortunately, some hens will brood the egg and attack the chick. An incubator does not have to be supervised to prevent bullying.

Which is Best?

There are decided advantages to hatching chicks the natural way—under a hen. Whenever possible, this is probably the best option from the chick’s point of view. The temperature and humidity levels will always be kept optimal for health and proper development when the broody hen is in charge, and she will also get the chick off to a good start with minimal stress and plenty of TLC.

However, there are times when an incubator will come in handy, particularly if you have a lot of eggs to hatch or if you do not have a trustworthy broody hen. The latter is a particularly common problem, because broodiness has been deliberately bred out of most modern chicken breeds to boost egg production numbers. The most reliable broody breed left may be the Cochin, followed closely by the Buff Orpington.

What many chicken lovers do these days is allow a hen to set the eggs but keep an incubator handy as an insurance policy. If the hen proves unreliable, the situation can be quickly redeemed with minimal loss of life. All-natural and high-tech can sometimes work together quite nicely.

Helpful Resources

Murray McMurray Chick Selector
Find out which chicken breeds are most likely to brood with this handy tool.

Chicken BreedsChicken Breeds
Our online guide to popular chicken breeds includes assessments of each breed’s abilities in brooding and mothering chicks. Check out the section on uses and the list of pros and cons for the breeds you are interested in.

What is a Composite Breed?

What is a Composite Breed?
Composite sheep; photo courtesy of USDA ARS

Composite breeds are growing in popularity across the United States. This trend seems to be the most advanced among beef cattle producers, but has gained some attention among sheep and goat breeders, as well.

In the development phase, creating a composite breed involves crossing two or more pure breeds until a desired ratio is achieved. This may sound simple, but to create a sizable population free from inbreeding problems requires dozens of sires and potentially hundreds of females. The crossbred offspring of this initial foundation have to be crossed and preferably recrossed until the population stabilizes with each breed contributing to the overall genetic makeup in the desired proportion.

Once the composite breed is established, however, management becomes extremely simple. A composite is mated like a pure breed. In other words, composite animals can be freely bred to each other without concern about losing consistency. Also, only one breeding group is required, unlike long-term crossbreeding systems that maximize hybrid vigor through the maintenance of several herds, each of a different breed or cross thereof.

As you might have noticed, a true composite breed is essentially a pure breed in its infancy.

A few populations are referred to as composites or “open” composites, but are maintained with regular influxes of new genetics from other breeds. While this guarantees that inbreeding will be avoided entirely, it once again adds an element of inconsistency into the population. Open composites tend to fluctuate wildly in performance unless managed carefully and deliberately.

Examples of Composite Breeds

There are many different composite breeds available in the beef cattle world today. Examples include:

  • Balancer.
  • Beefmaster.
  • Brangus.
  • Braford.
  • LimFlex.
  • MARC II.
  • Santa Gertrudis.

In sheep, one of the most common composites is the Polypay, designed to excel in both lamb and wool production. Goat keepers can take advantage of the TexMaster, a meat breed.

Why Use Composite Breeds?

There are several reasons people might opt to use a composite breed or sire:

  • Predictability.
  • Consistent levels of hybrid vigor—very difficult to maintain in both long-term purebreeding and crossbreeding programs.
  • The ability to combine desired traits of several pure breeds, thus quickly creating an animal population ideally suited to a given set of environmental or economic circumstances.
  • Ease of management; other types of crossbreeding rotations can become painfully complicated, particularly where the land base limits the number of separate herds or flocks that can be maintained.

Disadvantages of Composite Breeds

Composite breeds have one major disadvantage compared to crossbred animals, and that is a somewhat lower level of hybrid vigor. However, this is only a problem in the short term. Hybrid vigor is maximized in the first generation of a cross, or when the crossbred population is initially created. It is lost in subsequent generations (see the explanation in The Breeding Toolbox series). Complex rotational crossbreeding systems can be created to maximize hybrid vigor over time, but taking advantage of a composite breed is much easier. Of course, where young animals are raised solely for production and not for breeding purposes, crossbreeding may be considered as a way to maximize immediate levels of hybrid vigor.

Care must be taken to avoid high levels of inbreeding, even when raising composite livestock. If replacement breeding animals are raised within the herd, inbreeding is a real threat, particularly in a small operation. This problem can be avoided by periodically introducing a new sire of the same composite breed.

And, of course, it must be remembered that no composite breed is a silver bullet. If inferior animals go into the gene pool of the composite population, inferior animals will likely be the result. Composite breeding is not an excuse to avoid selection and culling of breeding stock.

But for those seeking a balance between consistency and hybrid vigor and those who cannot otherwise find the best genetics for their situation, a well-bred composite may be the answer.

Helpful Resource

Choosing a Breed of CattleChoosing a Breed of Cattle
Are composite cattle right for you? This book will help you determine just that, and will help you compare composites to industrial stocks, standardized breeds, landraces, and feral populations, too. Learn more here.


Pick-a-ChickLooking for the best breed of chicken to raise this year? How about a heritage breed?

Heritage chicken breeds may not reach the egg or meat production levels of commercial hybrids, but they are often healthier and hardier, not to mention more attractive. For a free-range situation, heritage breeds can’t be beat.

The Livestock Conservancy has a very helpful and accurate chart to assist new poultry keepers in choosing the best breed for their circumstances. This chart displays key characteristics of each breed in an at-a-glance format:

  • Origin.
  • Conservation status.
  • Purpose.
  • Weight.
  • Egg color.
  • Egg size.
  • Rate of lay.
  • Temperament.
  • Brooding instinct.
  • Recommended experience level.
  • Climate preference.

Additional information is also provided on important considerations, such as hardiness, predator savvy, foraging instinct, mothering ability, meat characteristics, and genetic challenges that breeders may face.

Breeds range from the hardy Ancona to the ornamental Yokohama and include everything in between, such as traditional American favorites like Leghorns, Rhode Island Reds, and Plymouth Rocks.

Great resource for beginners and seasoned chicken keepers alike!

British and Continental Cattle Breeds

British and Continental Cattle Breeds

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.

British Breeds

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 genetics.

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.
  • Fertility.
  • 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.

Continental Breeds

British and Continental Cattle Breeds

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:

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.

Helpful Resource

Choosing a Breed of Cattle

Choosing a Breed of Cattle
This book will help you compare British and Continental breeds with zebu, American, and Spanish-American breeds, and will walk you through the process of deciding what breed is right for you. Information is also included on British and Continental dairy cattle. Free sample pages are available.