Beef Herds: Old and Not so Old
The faces of beef cattle peering over a farm hedge is a typical image of British farming.
Today’s breeds range from the ancient Herefords to the recently introduced Chianinas and Simmentals.
The beef cattle of the British Isles have undergone a quiet revolution in the past 20 years. Foreign bulls have been imported and crossed with native British breeds to produce a new hybrid that matures earlier — because of a faster growth rate — as swell as producing a heavier beast with leaner meat. However, the 15 or more native British beef cattle breeds are all still important; they range in size and appearance from the small, squat, compact Aberdeen Angus to the shaggy, wide-horned Highland.
In contrast to dairy cattle calves, those raised for their meat alone are usually richly fed so they become large and heavy within as short a time as possible. Most beef cattle breeds have thick bodies, short legs and massive hind-quarters.
In areas that are not appropriate for raising large herds for either beef or milk, cattle that can produce milk and meat are kept. These are called dual-purpose cattle. Until recently they produced less milk than dairy breeds, and meat which was inferior to the beef-only breeds. However, careful selective breeding has produced improved strains of the old native breeds, such as the Red Poll, South Devon and Welsh Black, that compare most favourably with a true dairy cow or a beef cattle breed.
Beef cattle calves are born either in the beef suckler herd or on dairy farms. In both cases the cows have been bred selectively over several generations to suit these very different ways of life. The most important source of beef cattle is the dairy herd. Every cow has to produce a calf in order to come into milk and, overall, equal numbers of heifer calves and bull calves are born.
The bull calves, born in a dairy herd, have no other future but to be reared for beef, except for a few lucky ones with excellent pedigree records, that are selected for rearing as bulls and used for future matings. Most male cattle reared for beef are castrated and then are called steers. Those heifer calves that are not needed for producing milk are diverted into beef production. They are separated from the cow at a few days of age and are bucket-fed with a milk substitute until about five weeks old.
The other main source of beef cattle is that of the suckler cow herd. Beef suckler herds are kept on a wide range of farms. Some herds are reared on lowland farms but the majority are reared on upland farms 150-300m (500-1000ft) above sea level, and mountain farms above 300m (1000ft). Beef suckler cows are usually mated with a beef cattle bull and they calve in the spring or autumn. The calf is reared by its mother (dam) and as one mother cares for one offspring the calf is said to be single-suckled.
The Highland or Kyloe is a native breed of the central and northern Highlands, and the Western Islands of Scotland. With its large, spreading horns and its long, shaggy coat of straight or slightly wavy hair, the animal appears massive. However, it is not as large as it looks, the body being of a medium size only beneath all that fur. A dense undercoat of soft, fine, woolly hair protects it in the exposed surroundings of its home country, where it can subsist on the poorest grazing. An adaptation that helps its survival in bleak environments is the fact that its first stomach (rumen) is larger than that of other breeds. This allows the Highland to take in a larger amount of roughage and so increases the heat produced through fermentation, giving it extremely effective built-in central heating.
The Galloway is an old breed of obscure origin. It supposedly takes its name from the southwest county in Scotland where it was the only breed of cattle to be found at one time. During the 17th and 18th centuries over 20,000 Galloways were sent down the drove roads each year from Scotland to be fattened on richer pastures in England, mainly in East Anglia. This black or dun-coloured, hornless (polled) animal is another hardy breed that can withstand intense winter frosts, as well as very wet areas or even arid conditions. The skin is thick and the coat abundant, consisting of a dense, mossy undercoat with an outer covering of long, fine hair.
A `Blue-grey’ is a popular, efficient crossbred suckler cow resulting from a Galloway cow being crossed with a Whitebred Shorthorn bull. This crossbred is usually found in northern England and southwest Scotland.
The Aberdeen Angus originated in the old local breeds of Angus and Aberdeenshire, where they were known as `Doddies’ and ‘Humlies’. Records go back to the middle of the 16th century, when, even then, a proportion of these cattle were black and hornless — characteristics that are now practically fixed in the breed.
The Aberdeen Angus is popular as the heifers calve at a young age and have few calving difficulties, and the calves mature early. This breed gives beef of excellent quality, and in Britain is the cornerstone of Scotch quality beef.
The Hereford was noted for its quality in the county of Herefordshire at the beginning of the 17th century. Then they were acknowledged not only for their beef, but also because with their large, stoutly built, hardy bodies they were excellent for work. Herefords today are generally well suited to being reared and fattened on rich pastures. Pedigree herds can be found on many English and Welsh farms and the breed has become widely spread around the world, having been exported to the United States, Canada, South America and Australia. One reason why Herefords have become one of the world’s dominant breeds is that the cattle have proved to be very adaptable to a wide range of climates.
The Shorthorn existed as early as the mid- 16th century in northeast England and came mainly from Dutch and Scandinavian stock. The breed spread throughout the British Isles and breeders developed different types to suit their needs. Today four breeds are recognised — the Beef Shorthorn, the Dairy Shorthorn, the Northern Dairy Shorthorn, and the Whitebred Shorthorn.
The Beef Shorthorn was developed by Scottish breeders. It is a large animal that matures remarkably early. Its colour can be red, red and white, or roan; a dark roan being the most common
Welsh Black cattle are believed to have existed in medieval times. The strain we recognise today appears to have come from two types. The North Wales or Anglesey, and the Pembroke or Castlemartin breed of southwestern Wales. At the beginning of this century a new breed was produced from the Anglesey and the Castlemartin. The former was more important for beef production while the latter was more of a dairy type. The modern breed is a dual-purpose animal with different emphasis put on the herds depending upon where they are farmed.
The South Devon is Britain’s largest native bleed of cattle and is found grazing the rich lowland plains in south Devon and Cornwall. Often called South Hams’ this animal is distinguished from the Devon by its greater size. Also the South Devon is not usually found in the hilly regions of Devonshire where the Devon breed is farmed. A true dual-purpose breed, the short-legged South Devon can reach massive proportions.
The Red Poll of East Anglia was developed from local breeds : the Norfolk Horned, a small red, compact beef breed, and the dairy Polled Suffolk Dun. The steers fatten early and the beef produced is of good quality. Many dairy herds give excellent yields of good quality milk that compares favourably with a true dairy breed.
Cattle have been developed in recent decides by crossing Highland cows with Beef Shorthorn bulls. It is the most important new breed of cattle to have been developed in Britain this century. The breed was evolved on the island of Luing (pronounced Ling) off the west coast of Scotland. The coat colour ranges from red through yellow to white with a series of roan coat patterns. The small cows give birth to sturdy calves that put on weight fairly rapidly before they are weaned.
Charolais cattle bulls were first imported into Britain in 1961 from France in the hope that crosses with Friesian cows would produce quick-fattening calves. In Europe and the United States the Charolais had proved itself as a cattle breed with a fast growth rate giving excellent lean meat. The crosses with Friesian cows were most fruitful. The crossbreds grew 10.6% faster than the Hereford-Friesian crosses and were more efficient at converting their vegetable food into meat.