I often get asked “What breed of cattle should I run on my farm?” My typical Extension answer is “It depends.” Selecting a breed or combination of breeds to use in your beef herd should be based on the following criteria: (1) marketability in your area; (2) cost and availability of good seed stock; (3) climate; (4) quantity and quality of feedstuffs on your farm; (5) how the breeds used in a crossing program complement one another; and (6) personal preference.
As I discuss various breed characteristics, I will refer to Table 1:
1. Marketability. If you are targeting the commercial, commodity market, you will want calves that are large framed (finish greater than 1,250 pounds), grow fast, are efficient and possess good carcass quality. In Table 1, Brahman, Simmental, Maine-Anjou, Charolais and Chianina excel in growth rate and mature size (frame size). Brahman are not suited to our environment, so I do not recommend them. Looking at Charolais and Chianina, milk production is the lowest of the breeds listed. Therefore I would question the use of these breeds in a purebred form as cows. Carcass quality is best described in the column “Lean: fat ratio.” Note that the lowest is the Jersey breed. That is not a surprise relative to lean or muscle, but on the marbling side of quality, the Jersey is one of the highest marbling breeds. Therefore, for carcass quality, Hereford, Angus, Red Poll and Devon would be preferred, yet they are pretty low in growth rate and mature size.
2. Cost and availability of good seed stock. Looking at Table 1, some breeds are not common in our area: Red Poll, Tarentaise and Pinzgauer. The cost to purchase and ship cattle to the Northeast could be high. Not being common also can limit the availability of good seed stock.
3. Climate. As an example of climatic adaptability, British breeds (Hereford, Angus, Devon) and some of the Continental breeds (Gelbvieh, Simmental, Maine-Anjou, Limousin, Charolais, Chianina) are well adapted to cold climates but do not fare as well in subtropical regions. Conversely, Brahman blood is needed for optimum performance in certain Gulf Coastal areas but is not required or recommended in the northern states.
4. Quantity and quality of feedstuffs on your farm. This gets back to growth rate and mature size. In range states where forage is limited and stocking rate can be as high as 1 cow/100 acres, cow size is a huge issue. Large cows in this environment cannot find enough feed to meet their maintenance requirements, let alone reproduce and raise a calf. In our environment with bountiful forage resources and a stocking rate as low as 1 cow per 2 acres, larger cows can work well and be profitable.
5. How do the breeds used in a crossing program complement one another? When we were looking at marketability, we found breeds that excelled in growth rate but were less desirable for milk production. We also found breeds that had desirable carcass quality but an undesirable growth rate. Crossing these breeds with complementary traits creates progeny that meet the desired traits. If you are selling feeder calves, you should be using a planned cross-breeding program. A commercial producer should be selecting bulls, cows and replacement heifers with just as much care as a seed stock producer. This is called hybrid vigor, and properly selected crossbred cows will almost always outperform purebred cows.
6. Personal preference. Regardless of how profitable one breed may be, if you do not like them, you will not do well. Years ago I worked with a producer who did not like white-faced cows. He did not care about color except that they needed to be a solid color. I have also been on farms where black cows were the choice because they looked good against the white fences surrounding the property.
I have left out many characteristics because this is meant to be an introduction to breed selection; Table 1 is one way to classify cattle. Additionally, with all of the selection tools available to breeders, there is as much variation within a breed as there is between them. As an example, traditionally, yearling weights of Angus cattle were less than those of Simmental. Over the last 10 years, Angus breeders have increased yearling weights, whereas Simmental breeders have reduced them. The result is that the difference in yearling weight that used to exist between Angus and Simmental has been narrowed greatly.
Marketability is at the top of the list. Before you purchase your first cattle, you need to know where you plan to market them. Choosing the wrong breed can be like the proverbial square peg in a round hole.