What Makes A Cattle Breed?
To discuss breeds, it is necessary to understand that term. There is
no generally accepted definition, scientific or otherwise, of a breed. A 1940 dictionary defines breed as “a race
of animals which have some distinctive qualities in common.” A 1999 dictionary says “a stock of animals within a
species having similar appearance, usually developed by deliberate selection.”
There is no “official” recognition
of cattle breeds. At one time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture periodically printed a bulletin, “Beef Cattle
Breeds.” Although inclusion in this publication was often considered official recognition, the 1975 edition of the
publication clearly stated, “Inclusion of a breed should not be interpreted as official recognition by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture.”
There are organizations of breeds, such as the National Pedigreed
Livestock Council, but not all breed associations are members. The National Association of Animal Breeders has 108
breed codes for identifying cattle semen. I. L. Mason’s World Dictionary of Livestock Breeds lists more than 250
“numerically or historically important” breeds of cattle, along with many less important ones.
One definition of a breed might be animals recorded in an association
registry. There are currently some 75 cattle breed registries in the United States. In some cases, there are more
than one registry for essentially the same breed.
The only actions needed to start a registry are to adopt specific
requirements of eligibility and start recording ancestry. Although those requirements may vary considerably and may
not be very stringent, an existing registry may be as good a definition of a breed as any other criteria.
The distinguished animal breeder Dr. Jay Lush, in The Genetics of
Populations, said, “A breed is a group of domestic animals, termed such by common consent of the breeders.” In
short, a “breed” is whatever you say it is.
Miniature cattle breeds are gaining momentum and becoming very popular in
the USA. A lot of this popularity can be attributed to the increase in small farms springing up in all areas as
more and more people are going for the rural living life style. Minis are better adapted to small holdings, are
good converters of grass into beef thus allowing one to grow their own home raised beef without a lot of extra
The development of the breeds takes different routes also. In some breeds you can see
the amount of change that can occur as the result of selection for a small number of traits. As an example,
Holstein cattle have been selected primarily for milk production and are the highest milk
producing cattle in the world. Other breeds have traits that result from natural selection pressure based upon the
environment in which they were developed. An example of this might be the N'dama cattle from west Africa. These
animals have, through the centuries, developed a resistance to trypanosomiasis or sleeping sickness spread by the
tse-tse fly, which is fatal to most other breeds of cattle.
Should we be concerned about preserving information about minor, or relatively
unknown, breeds of livestock?
Is there a reason for the preservation of minor breeds of livestock?
Couldn't more improvement be made if there were fewer breeds?
Well, lets go back to our Holstein example again for a moment. While the Holstein
clearly has an advantage over other breeds in the production of whole milk, this advantage is based on feeding high
levels of cereal grains and pricing that favors low milk-solids content. A drastic change in either of these
factors could result in a decrease in the advantage of the Holstein.
Given these conditions perhaps a breed that is currently rare or endangered, such as
the Dutch Belted, which displayed excellent milking ability in a grass-based dairy situation in trials in the early
1900's, would find itself on the forefront.
In Australia, composite breeds, such as the Australian Friesian Sahiwal, have been
developed which have higher milk production levels than Holsteins in the tropical regions of that country.
Another example might be an increased need for natural resistance to diseases or
parasites should a current antibiotic or other treatment become unavailable or ineffective.
An example of this type might be the natural resistance of some breeds of sheep have to
Should anthelmintics become restricted or uneconomical then a breed such as the
critically endangered Gulf Coast Native, with the parasite resistance it has developed through natural selection,
could be of critical importance in the sheep industry.
In many areas, genetic diversity should be maintained to help meet the potential
challenge resulting from changes in production resources and market requirements. We hope that this website will
serve as an information resource for the potential of some of these breeds.