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Just not "into" cattle? Consider other breeds.

What does the word "cattle" call to your mind? Do you visualize a herd of Holsteins, grazing on a lush fescue pasture? Or a Longhorn bull, chewing his cud under a big oak? Or a group of young Black Angus calves prancing on the range, oblivious to their ultimate fate?

Whatever you think of, it's probably not a herd of zebu, or yak-crosses, or bison-crosses or suborns. You probably think of a taurine breed, such as the Holstein or Angus or Longhorn. Taurine cattle are of (direct or indirect) European origin, being descended from the Aurochs. They represent only a fraction of the cattle breeds inexistence.

Getting the terms straight

The word "cattle" simply means members of the genus Bos, having 60 chromosomes. European cattle are called Bos primigenius taurus, while South Asian (and most African) cattle are B. primigenius indicus. The Indonesian banteng, which some believe to be an actual surviving relict population of the aurochs, is B. primigenius javanicus. Yaks are Bos grunniens, while the bison and American buffalo are Bos bison. Some older sources list them as Bison bison, but this classification is disappearing, as more and more proof arises that bison belong in the cattle genus.

To varying degrees, all of these can be cross-bred and produce calves. Zebu (Asian or B. p. indicus) cattle, taurine (European) cattle, and bantegs can all interbreed with no problem whatsoever. They can also breed with bison, American buffalo, and yaks although success in such cases is typical only when the bull is a primigenius (taurine or zebu) and the cow is of another type, rather than the other way around. Wood buffalo can interbreed easily with yaks. (Note that American and wood buffalo are subspecies of Bos bison. They must not be confused with the water buffalo (Bubalus spp.), which is altogether different and cannot breed successfully with cattle or bison.)

Unlike mules, crosses between members of the bovine genus are not sterile hybrids. In most cases, a yak-bison or taurine-buffalo or zebu-yak can reproduce successfully. An animal of mixed taurine and buffalo (or American bison) parentage is called a "cattalo"; a yak-buffalo cross is a "yakalo'; a yak-taurine cross is a "dzo"; a taurine-wisent cross is a "zubron."


An entangled history

The first attempt in the U.S. to cross-breed bison with taurine cattle happened in the 1850s. It started in southeastern Colorado, where a newly settled rancher brought in a herd of beef cattle from the east. The bovines grazed carefree on the vast grassland, and all seemed well.., until winter came. That first winter, a big blizzard brought shockingly frigid temperatures and dumped huge amounts of snowfall. The cattle herd, standing in the open field, was half-buried in snow. Most of them died.

Awakening the next morning, the rancher looked out and saw his snow-covered, dead animals. In a flash, he realized the foolishness of trying to introduce fragile European cattle into the rough prairie environment, when all the while there was already a centuries-old local population of bovines, perfectly adapted to the extremes of Colorado's climate. The bison, for crying out loud! There they stood, healthy as ever, scarcely bothered by the snow on their backs, protected by their thick winter coats.

With the few surviving animals that the rancher had, he did something that would make his herd different from all the rest, and much more hardy. The stockman captured some bison and kept them with his domestic cattle. Eventually it worked, and he ended up with a small herd of "cattalo," which grew to become a large herd. Moreover, he was not alone in having such an idea: around the same time, farmers in Alberta had already begun to do the same thing. The descendants of those original animals still live on scattered North American farms today, and are sometimes known as "beefalo."

Crosses between the European cattle and the East Indian go back even further. The East Indian includes several dozen breeds, the most common of which is the Brahman. The Brahman cattle found in India, and nowadays in warmer parts of the Americas, is a strain of zebu. African and Brazilian cattle breeds are often the result of long interbreeding between the zebu and taurine cattle. In the U.K., and particularly in southwestern England, zebu-hybrids are said to account for roughly half of all cattle kept there. Some claim that the meat of zebu is inferior to that of taurine cattle, and some even go so far as to say that only taurine breeds should be called beef, or that the use of the term in reference to zebu's flesh constitutes false advertising. The word zebu has even come into service of late as a popular noun meaning "deception or misleading labeling," especially in advertisements: one book about the subject is entitled Complete and Utter Zebu. Nevertheless, the great herds of zebu are located not in Britain, but in the tropical countries. They are far more resistant to hot weather, in a physiological sense, than European breeds are.

Also having occurred since time immemorial are crosses between taurine cattle and yaks. The Tibetan language even has terms for animals of varying degrees of each: a dzo is exactly 50% taurine and 50% yak, for instance. In fact, it is likely that most of the seemingly taurine cattle in Tibet have some yak ancestry. (Technically only the bull of Bos grunniens is a yak. The cow is called a "dri," rhyming with "tree.")

In North America, there are only a small number of yak herds. (See COUNTRYSIDE issue Jan/Feb 2010.) They are divided into several breeds, the most established being the Imperial. Buffalo-like in many respects, they can withstand cold temperatures, though in hot weather the bison can generally handle it better than a yak. Most yaks in North America are located in Minnesota and Alberta, Canada. In Minnesota, one ranch breeds all-American dzo, referring to them as "yattle," a neologism no better than the ancient Tibetan name, though perhaps more easily pronounced by English-speaking readers. In Alberta, yaks are occasionally bred to wood buffalo, resulting in so-called "yakalo" (another portmanteau word). On the European continent, the similar equivalent has been the Polish breeding of zubrons: a breed of cattle having taurine and wisent parentage, a situation which has probably happened naturally since the days of the aurochs.

Space would fail me to name the other times in which bovines have been found to breed outside the pseudo-species boundaries of their genus, whether in the wild or in domestication. The small and odd-looking cattle of Nepal, for example, have proven through zoological study to be a dihybrid mixture of taurines, miniature zebu, and Tibetan yaks. The remnant bison herds of the United States have in many cases been shown to possess taurine genes, probably dating back to the open-range days of the wild West. The cattle breed known as American Cattle have some bison ancestry (this was known by the rancher who first attempted to standardize the breed), not to mention their large percentage of zebu parentage. And although no study has proven it, it is not implausible to suggest that the Scottish Highland cattle might be partly yak. They indubitably possess some yak-like characteristics, such as relatively flat backs, horizontal horns, long hair, and relatively gentle bulls.

Though taurine cattle breeds can be successfully raised in many places, they originate in mild, moist European climates. They typically descend from inbred herds kept in tight spaces, as they still are in parts of Europe today. The open ranges of southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan might more appropriately be occupied by bison or yakalos than by Herefords, and the hot Southlands of the U. S. might better be stocked with an East Indian breed than with Holsteins. Stock-keepers in Texas have already realized this, and many of them now host herds of the famous Brahman cattle, the breed native to India (and from which the expression "Holy cow!" is derived). The wet, chilly windy lands of Maine and the Maritime Provinces would suit Scottish Highland cattle or zubrons.

Thinking outside entrenched pseudo-species lines allows the full potential of the Great Bovine Baramin to be realized. It allows cattle to be raised profitably in many ways without ever killing the animal: the yak and yakalo, for instance, yield a wool-like fleece as well as dairy products, not to mention their ability to pull loads as oxen do, and to plough (as they do in Tibet and Nepal). The bison, though its hair is rougher, also has a useful fleece. Non-taurine cattle also thrive in drier, sparser forage conditions than the taurines do. They are also less bothered by face flies and bottle flies, thanks to their hair, though zebu are an exception since they also lack long hair.

So if you are considering raising cattle, or you have some good pastureland, take full consideration of the animals available. Taurine cattle may be right for your farm, but then again, some other kind may be better. Don't let anyone buffalo you into buying Angus or Holsteins, no matter how much your neighbors might yak about their supposed "advantages" compared to other breeds (other taurine breeds, of course). Non-taurines may be less available, but you could be the first to change that. The so-called specific boundaries between the bovines have proven to be nothing more than subspecific, in most cases. They are all the same kind of animal. Any statement to the contrary is complete and utter zebu.


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Title Annotation:The cow barn
Author:Goss, Jeffery, Jr.
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Apr 27, 2010
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