If you ask 10 different farmers which is the best breed of cattle, or any other type of livestock, to keep, you’ll get 10 different answers.
I think that’s part of what makes the British countryside so fascinating and distinctive. The patchwork of different fields and terrains, stretched across the length and breadth of the country, from flat, lush meadows to windswept mountains and moors, dotted with a variety of breeds that are just as unique, each with characteristics which make them most suited to that farm’s geography and system.
There’s a range of breeds, from ones native to the UK, to ones from all corners of the globe, meaning there’s something to suit everyone and, more often than not, quite a few that fit the bill. There’s often as much variation found within a breed as between different ones, so choosing which to keep is one of the hardest decisions.
Dwindling down a shortlist eventually comes down to personal preference; you’re going to spend every day looking at them, so you’ve got to like what you see and enjoy working with them!
When it comes to cattle, there are around 34 breeds which are native to the UK, with 14 of them considered rare, according to the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. No doubt, you’ll be able to spot at least a handful of them by just a drive down some country roads. From the distinctive red bodies with a contrasting white face and belly of the Herefords, the long horns and shaggy, wavy locks of the Highlands, to the delicate Jersey cows with their sandy coats and shiny black noses, and eyes outlined by what looks like black eyeliner.
Then there’s all the Continental breeds, originating from all over Europe, plus some from other parts of the world. They’re now regular sights here, in the British Isles, after most breeds began being imported from the end of the 1950s onwards. One of the most popular of the continental breeds in the UK is the Limousin, a French breed with a golden-orange coat and a well-muscled body; with more calves registered as Limousin sired than any other breed most years.
With over 250 breeds of cattle worldwide, and the ability to cross them with one another, to take advantage of different breed’s traits and strengths, the options are endless.
So, which cow breeds do we chose to keep here, and why?
Firstly, we’re a Suckler herd, which means all our cows are Beef cows.
For anyone who doesn’t know, cow breeds can be divided into two categories, Beef breeds and Dairy breeds. Beef cows don’t have nearly as much milk as Dairy cows, and are typically a sturdier, broader build which results in a higher yield of beef- sort of like the difference between the shape of a Labrador compared to a Whippet.
Some Dairy cows are put in-calf to a Beef breed, to produce a calf that’s of more value beef-wise, and the resulting heifer calves will sometimes end up in Suckler herds, like ours, to be breeding cows. All our cows used to be bred like that, they’d arrive here as young calves and be reared by one of our cows alongside her own calf, as if she had twins or triplets.
A Suckler cow has a calf a year and raises that calf themselves, hence the word Suckler, as they produce suckled calves. Those calves will be weaned from them sometime before the next calf is born, making sure the cow gets a break between calves.
In our case, the calves will then be grown on and reared for beef on someone else’s farm, as we sell them at around 12 months old, ending up on a supermarket shelf at around 2 years old. Some farms rear their calves for beef themselves, some sell them to other farms earlier or later than we do, and some Suckler herds produce breeding animals for other herds.
What system you run, like whether they live outside all year round at high altitudes or on sheltered fields with a shed for winter, if they will calve outside or in, whether the cows are going to be sustaining their calf on milk alone or if you’re going to provide extra feed, and what the calves are ultimately intended for, all determines what you’re looking for when choosing breeds.
Things can get pretty heated in the “what breed” debate, but they all have a place, and everyone has a soft spot for the ones they keep.
We aim to keep cows who are bred for strong maternal traits, so they’ll be good mothers with lots of milk, and a bull from a different breed, that’s purely for beef production rather than for producing future breeding cows, so he carries genes for shape and size rather than milkiness and mothering ability.
In theory, this means the resulting calves are reared well by their mothers but have a better shape than them, thanks to their father. But anything with a mixture of genetics involved is science and probability, mixed with a little luck and witchcraft. You get some calves who come out exactly as you hoped, and others who are a throwback to their mother’s short and stumpy ancestor from 5 generations ago!
Breeding cattle is about playing the long game, and it’s an unpredictable game, full of surprises, that I absolutely love.
It takes a long time to work out if you’re heading in the direction you want and if you’ve picked the right genetics. There’s at least 15 months from birth for a heifer calf to be big enough to safely and intentionally become pregnant, another 9 months for her to have that calf, and around another 2 years until that calf is fully grown and ready to be taken to the abattoir, where you’ll find out if they produced enough meat and any downfalls with the shape and size of the carcass, so you know what to tweak in your breeding or feeding program for future years.
For some, that might sound very longwinded, but watching changes gradually take effect and seeing how the offspring of different breed mixes perform is captivating, to me anyway! We’ve watched some dramatic changes in the last 5 years in our herd, as two breeds which were completely new to us were added; Lincoln Red cows, which are quickly building in numbers here, and the latest change, a Bazadaise (pronounced Baz-A-Day) Bull.
To find out more about these two breeds and why these two polar opposites have ended up being a part of our farm, here is part 2, introducing the Teddy Bears and the Body Builder.