These breeds demonstrate an example of natural selection at work as many have adapted to specific climatic conditions such as heat, cold, mountains, drought, and tropics. Some do better surviving on scrubby vegetation and others produce tender marbled meat on grass diets because of their unique genetics. Some are generous milk producers and some milk composition is more desirable for cheese making.
Modern day commercial cattle feedlots tend to raise grain-fed cattle bred for large production economics. Consequently, some of the old and heritage cattle breeds have become rare or endangered. Luckily, there is a renewed interest in heritage breeds and in reviving the older breeds which have unique and desirable qualities. The popular slow food and eat local movements, and producers of artisan products help to support this revival.
There are 800 recognized breeds of cattle and 1.3 billion cattle in the world. The next graph shows a breakdown of cattle numbers by country:
Cattle are herbivorous ruminants, meaning that they have a digestive system that allows use of otherwise indigestible foods by regurgitating and rechewing them as “cud”.
Some breeds, included in this list, which are most suitable for hobby, for grow your own food, or for lifestyle farms are the Dexter, Randall, and Jersey breeds, to name a few. Some, such as Piedmontese produce nicely marbled beef when raised on grass.
Next, find photographs and brief highlights about each breed, ending with a link to the breed’s association, if it has one.
USE: Dual purpose, originally large draft breed, later selected for beef. Chianina oxen were the principal source of agricultural power in the area until displaced by mechanisation. They were in use in agriculture until at least 1970.
NOTES: Largest and oldest breed of cattle in the world. Tallest and heaviest. Heat and sunlight tolerant and gentle disposition. They now number in the thousands in Brazil.
USE: Lean beef.
NOTES: Small, stocky; black, red, dun or white. Very long coat and very long pale horns, upswept in cows and steers. Very hardy and thrifty. Adaptable to high mountains and colder climates.
USE: Beef. Milk.
NOTES: Smallest European cattle breed, about half the size of a Hereford. Good for the hobby farmer or grow your own food farmer.
USE: Beef. For cross-breeding.
NOTE: This ancient breed has a high feed conversion efficiency, and an ability to produce lean, tender meat. Easy to work with.
South Devon Cattle
ORIGINATED: Largest of the British Native breeds.
USE: Beef. Also milk and draft.
NOTES: Also called “Orange Elephants” and “Gentle Giants.” The breed is exceptionally adaptable to varying climatic conditions and is presently well established on five continents.
USE: Beef and milk in sub-tropical climates.
NOTES: Named for the sacred cow of Hinduism. Docile and intelligent.
ORIGINATED: South Africa.
USE: Meat, milk, and draft animals.
NOTES: Hardy, used in the tropics, with fertility, docility and greater weight gain potential.
USE: Quality marbled beef. Produce a high quality beef product on grass alone.
NOTES: Fewer than 10,000 globally. Expensive.
ORIGINATED: Northwest Italy.
USE: Produce lean and tender grass fed beef due to their muscle genetics. Milk. Cheeses.
NOTES: Beef from the Piedmontese cattle is seen as a premium product. The herd in Piedmont numbers some 273,000 head of cattle.
ORIGINATED: U.S. Gulf Coast natural selection, after introduced by Spanish in 16th century.
USE: Dairy. Beef.
NOTES: Landrace heritage endangered breed, lean, small, adapted to climate of the deep south, able to forage on marginal vegetation, disease-resistant. Short horns, various colors, often spotted.
ORIGINATED: Sunderland, Vermont.
USE: Dairy, meat, and draft. Good choice for homesteads and hobby farmers using low input systems.
NOTES: Rare breed. Considered to be a landrace breed, descended from the local cattle common in New England in the nineteenth Century. Suited to the New England climate. They have strong maternal and survival instincts, high intelligence, and are very docile when handled regularly.
USE: Milk. Beef.
NOTES: Docile and easy to work with. Braunvieh cattle imported to the United States in the 19th century were the origin of the modern Brown Swiss cattle breed, though the American breed differs from them today.
ORIGINATED: Iceland. Genetically isolated for years.
USE: Milk. Beef.
NOTES: The milk from Icelandic cows is used to make Skyr, a soft cheese or yogurt.
ORIGINATED: Channel Island of Jersey.
USE: Breed of small dairy cattle.
NOTES: Known for the high butterfat content of its milk and the lower maintenance costs due to its lower body weight, as well as its genial disposition. It is adaptable to hot climates and is raised in Brazil.
ORIGINATED: Northwest France.
USE: Milk. Beef. The milk is particularly suitable for cheese production.
NOTES: They are claimed to be descended from cattle imported by Viking settlers.
ORIGINATED: Western Switzerland.
USE: Beef. Dairy. Draft animal.
NOTES: Fast growing if well-fed. Among the oldest and most widely distributed breeds of cattle in the world. 80% in the U.S. are black.
ORIGINATED: In 1830 when original Simmental Cattle from Switzerland were imported to Bavaria and to Austria to improve the local dual-purpose breeds.
USE: A modern, high productive dual purpose breed that fits the economical needs of today.
NOTES: “Middle of the road type animal” with excellent muscling, good milk production and draft performance.
ORIGINATED: Montbéliard region of France.
USE: For dairying and particularly for cheese making. Popular for crossing with Holsteins to give improved longevity and fertility.
NOTES: There are nearly 400,000 milk recorded Montbéliarde cows in France. More expensive cattle than Holsteins. The milk protein is of a type well suited to cheese making and some herds are fed a hay based diet to produce milk specifically for this purpose.
ORIGINATED: Alps in Switzerland.
USE: Breed of dairy cattle that produces the second largest quantity of milk per annum, over 9,000 kg (20,000 lb.). The milk contains on average 4% butterfat and 3.5% protein, making their milk excellent for production of cheese.
NOTES: Resistant to the heat, cold and many other common cattle problems. They are hardy and capable of subsisting with little care or feed. Extremely docile temperament.
USE: Beef. Milk. Draft work.
NOTES: Endangered. The breed is excelling in South Africa. In the 19th century, they were bred into strong stock for work on farms, at breweries, and in sugar-beet areas. In its heyday, the Pinzgauer became the most popular cattle breed in Austria-Hungary.
ORIGINATED: West France.
USE: Primarily beef, some for milk.
NOTES: Red-and-white pied. Large breed.
USE: Beef and milk. Pasture raised.
NOTES: Suitable for conservation grazing.
ORIGINATED: A product of Nazi genetic engineering, German-based attempt to breed back the aurochs, which became extinct in 1627.
USE: Heck cattle are considered by some the most suitable cattle breed for low intensity grazing systems in certain types of nature reserves, due to their ruggedness and lack of need for human care.
NOTES: Auroch bulls were believed to weigh half of a rhinocerous’s weight, or 2,200 pounds. These cattle are not as large, but attempts continue to increase their size. Heck’s number about 2,000 in Europe, with some herds roaming freely in the Netherlands.
ORIGINATED: From Ongole (Bos indicus) cattle of India.
NOTES: Exported to Brazil, where they now comprise 80% of Brazilian cattle. They are resistant to high temperatures, parasites, and diseases. They are hardy in difficult conditions.
USE: Beef, riding.
NOTES: Very hardy in dry climates. Lightly muscled, lean beef. Horns can extend 7 feet. Gentle dispostion. Many colors. Very tough breed which puts on weight quickly.
ORIGINATED: Britain. Ireland.
USE: Beef and milk for non-intensive production.
NOTES: Rare, ancient, horned breed.
ORIGINATED: Species of wild cattle found in Southeast Asia.
USE: Meat. Working animals.
NOTES: Also known as tembadau. There are around 1.5 million domestic banteng, which are called Bali cattle. They have been introduced into Northern Australia. Banteng live in sparse forest where they feed on grasses, bamboo, fruit, leaves and young branches. The banteng is generally active both night and day, but in places where humans are common they adopt a nocturnal schedule. Banteng tend to gather in herds of two to thirty members.
ORIGINATED: Southwest France
USE: Draft animals until WWII.
NOTES: Second most popular breed in France.
ORIGINATED: Humped cattle originating in South Asia. Derived from Asian aurochs.
USE: As draught oxen, dairy cattle, beef cattle, byproducts such as hides and dung for fuel and manure. Adapted to high temperatures and raised in tropics.
NOTES: There are some 75 known breeds of zebu, split about evenly between African breeds and South Asian ones. Zebu were imported into Brazil in the early twentieth century and crossbred with Charolais cattle. The resulting breed, 63% Charolais and 37% Zebu, is called the Chanchim. It has a better meat quality than the zebu as well as better heat resistance than European cattle.
Tajima (Black Wagyu)
LOCATED: Japan, Hyōgo Prefecture.
USE: High quality, marbled, very expensive Kobe and Sanda beef.
NOTES: There are four breeds of Wagyu, but ninety percent of them are Black Wagyu. The well marbled meat's fat contains a high percentage of oleaginous unsaturated fat.
BONUS: Ox / Oxen
(Note that this is not a breed, but a term.)
USE: An ox, also known as a bullock in Australia, New Zealand and India, is a bovine trained as a draft animal. Oxen are commonly castrated adult male cattle, but cows or bulls may also be used in some areas. Oxen are used for plowing, for transport (pulling carts, hauling wagons and even riding), for threshing grain by trampling, and for powering machines that grind grain or supply irrigation among other purposes.
Oxen may be also used to skid logs in forests, particularly in low-impact, select-cut logging. Oxen are usually yoked in pairs. Light work such as carting household items on good roads might require just one pair, while for heavier work, further pairs would be added as necessary. A team used for a heavy load over difficult ground might exceed nine or ten pairs.
Copyright Notice: Please do not republish from this post in part or in full without permission.
Note that this post first appeared on my previous site, "Big Picture Agriculture", June 2011.---K.M.