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Which breed of cattle should you choose?

For a homesteader who wants to raise a couple of head of cattle, the choice can be very confusing. Read the breed literature and you'll be convinced every one is the one for you. Watching cattle go through the livestock auction might tell another story. The breed choice might be influenced by the desire for a milk breed, a dual purpose milk/beef breed or straight beef Even on the latter, the breed for the freezer may be different than the breed for the sales ring. Those which score high in some trait often score low in others.

Animal Agriculture: The Biology of Domestic Animals and Their Use, edited by H. Cole and M. Ronning (1974), contains a table on Comparative Rating on Economic Traits of 29 Breeds of Cattle Now Available to North American Producers. Considered were: cow traits (age at puberty, conception rate, milking ability and mature size), calf traits (pre-weaning growth and post-weaning growth), optimum slaughter weight, carcass (cutability, marbling and tenderness), and bull traits (fertility, freedom from genital defects and sire effect on calving ease). Except for optimum slaughter weight, each consideration was given a score of one to five with one being the most desirable.

The following are their combined score/optimum slaughter weight: Angus -- 29/950, Ayrshire -- 26/900, Beefmaster -- 27/1,150, Bradford -- 28/1,150, Brahman -- 42/1,150, Brangus -- 29/1,050, Brown Swiss - 25/1,200, Charbray -- 36/1,250, Charolais -- 34/1,250, Devon -- 28/1,050, Galloway -- 30/950, Guernsey -- 29/900, Hays Converter -- 26/1,150, Hereford -- 33/1,050, Holstein -- 22/1,200, Jersey -- 28/850, Limousin -- 28/1,200, Maine-Anjou -- 28/1,250, Milking Shorthorn -- 35/950, Red Angus -- 29/950, Red Poll -- 30/950, Santa Gertrudis -- 34/1,150, Scotch Highland -- 31/900, Simmental -- 24/1,250, Shorthorn -- 34/950 and South Devon -- 28/1,150. The average combined score is 30 with a standard deviation of 4.1 at the 95 percent confidence level.

Giving equal weight to all traits except optimum slaughter weight, the clear cut winner would be the Holstein with excellent scores in milking ability, mature size, pre-weaning growth, post-weaning growth and bull freedom from genital defects; above average scores in conception rate, cutability, tenderness and bull fertility; and average scores in age at puberty, marbling and sire effect on calving ease. No scores were below average.

The Holstein was followed closely by the Simmental, a large, dual-purpose breed from Switzerland. The only difference was a score of five versus three on sire effect on calving ease.

On the flip side, the Brahman only scored excellent in one trait -- sire effect on calving ease, above average only in cutability, average in three areas, below average in four and the poorest in three others.

The Holstein scored almost two standard deviations above the average, while the Brahman scored almost three standard deviations below it. That is roughly the equivalent of getting a classroom grade of A versus F-. Yet, Holsteins are significantly docked in sale ring prices, while some Brahman influence is considered to be desirable (due to their hardiness in hot climates).

Continuing to ignore optimum slaughter weight (which can be important since it costs more and more to put on those last several hundred pounds), the six breeds which appear to be ahead of the pack are the Holstein, Simmental, Brown Swiss, tie between Ayrshir and Hays Converter, and Beefmaster, in that order. The six which faired poorest were the Brahman, Charbray, Polled Shorthorn and a tie between Polled Hereford, Santa Gertrudis and Shorthorn, in that order.

What does all this mean for the homesteader? Probably not much! Factors not considered could also be important, such as adaptability to local conditions, foraging ability, butterfat level, hardiness (resistance to flies, ticks and disease and heat or cold tolerance), uniformity, longevity, maternal ability, disposition, what breed consistently sells well and the even more nebulous personal preference of the herdmaster.

It also doesn't include all available breeds nor does it reflect trends or that there may be more differences within a breed than between breeds. With the current shift towards lean beef, the desirability factor on marbling may be reversed.

A table of this nature can be of assistance in a cross-breeding program. For example, if one was having to pull a lot of calves, crossing with a breed which has an above average or excellent score in the sire effect on calving ease may be beneficial, particularly for first calf heifers. If one were having a low conception rate, crossing with a breed which has above average or excellent scores in cow conception rate and bull fertility may be beneficial (and the Jersey was the only breed to get the top rating in both areas). See the May/June '91 issue, page 27, for an article on obtaining cross-breeding percentages.

When a particular breed or cross predominates in an area, there is likely an economic reason for it. Check with your local county agent on what breeds are popular in your area and then attend several livestock auctions to see what comes through the sales ring and what it sells for. Each auction may have their own coding system, such as G for gummers (older stock), F for full-mouth and Y for yearling, followed by the number of months the facility vet estimated the cow is pregnant.

Basically the same rules for buying at a regular auction apply to livestock auctions. However, if you don't know what you are doing, you may be better off asking the office to recommend an independent order buyer since the bidding goes quickly and is largely unintelligible to a novice. For a fairly small commission per head they may be willing to purchase individual animals to your specifications or to sort them out of a larger purchase. For example, if you want a locally favored breed and grade, it is October and you want all cows to calve at the start of your green forage growth season, you might ask for young F's, choice potential grade, who are 3-4 months pregnant.

Wherever you purchase, make sure you are paying for scale weight, not someone's tape or eyeball estimate. For a homesteader, a dual purpose milk and beef breed like the Devon, Milking Shorthorn or Red Poll, may be most desirable.
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Author:Scharabok, Ken
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:May 1, 1993
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