Now we move on to the most visible animals on the farm, the cattle!
Cattle will be the largest, most obvious feature of our pastoral landscape and will do the majority of the grazing. They, along with the sheep and large black pigs, will harvest most of the solar energy harnessed by the grasses and legumes in the pastures and turn it into healthy, profitable, sustainable meat. While doing that they will trample undesirable forages, press new seeds into the soil, and deposit copious amounts of natural fertilizer from their back ends.
We will be practicing intensive rotational grazing; moving our mob of cattle every day to access new forages, to move away from yesterday’s wastes, and to give the grasses a chance to recover so that we don’t deplete our pastures of the most palatable species over time. Therefore, we are really looking for cattle that are easy to work with, gain well on grass, produce high-quality beef, will do well in Kentucky (where it can be hot and humid in the summer but cold in the winter), and have good maternal instincts combined with calving ease.
With those qualities in mind, here are the cattle breeds we are considering, in on particular order.
Belted Galloway – The “oreo” cow of Scottish descent. Even their hides can become very valuable assets after processing. The Belties tolerate cold very well and grow thick coats during the winter. They handle heat better than most cold-adapted cattle as well. They are listed as Recovering by the American Livestock Breed Conservancy. They have good maternal instincts and their long body conformation helps maximize the high-quality cuts of beef.
Red Poll – The always hornless Red Poll is a good pasture-based breed that can produce excellent quality beef on grass alone, which is definitely what we’re looking for. The ALBC lists the Red Poll as Threatened. They are very docile, so they’re great for intensive rotational grazing. The calves have low birth weights, but in one study Red Polls led the tested breeds in average 200-day weight of the calf for each bred cow. This means that they’re really fertile, hardy, and grow quickly.
Florida Cracker / Pineywoods – I list these breeds together because of their extremely similar characteristics, not because we would hybridize the two breeds. Both of these breeds are criollo cattle descended from the first cattle the Spanish brought to the New World. They’ve been left to adapt to the natural conditions here on this continent for almost 500 years. Both the Florida Cracker and the Pineywoods are heat-adapted cattle with good parasite and disease resistance. They are almost always horned and come in very cool color patterns. The beef is lean with a much different fat and CLA structure than most other beef. Both breeds are smallish and retain some of their wilder nature, or what you might call “attitude.”
Texas Longhorn – As much as any Razorbacks fan would hate to do this, Texas Longhorns have to be in the mix for consideration for us. Like the Florida Cracker and Pineywoods breeds, the Longhorn was developed from the cattle brought over by the Spanish and left to their own devices to survive on the American range. What’s developed is a breed that is heat-adapted, parasite- and disease-resistant, and is quite at ease calving on their own on the pasture. The meat is lean with a good Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio. The Longhorn can finish well on grass and has good maternal skills. The Longhorn gets larger than the other criollo cattle.
Murray Grey – For those of you who are also familiar with Tim and Liz Young of Nature’s Harmony, this is the cattle breed they chose to go with. It is a good choice for a pasture system. This Aussie breed can thrive on grass alone and has a very high dressing percentage. They are easy to handle and work around. Strong maternal instincts are another hallmark of the Murray Grey. Firetree Production Stock, located very close to us in Kentucky, was instrumental in bringing some of the first groups of these cattle over from Australia and there are some established herds of Murray Greys already around us.
Brahman – The Hindu sacred cow from India complete with shoulder hump, dewlap, and loose skin folds. This is a heat-tolerant breed that can also resist the cold down to 10 or 15 degrees. It is a medium-sized breed that gives birth to small calves and are quite capable of handling calving themselves. They are good mothers and can thrive under adverse conditions and poor forage. The demeanor can vary like all other breeds, but Brahmans can become so tame as to be hazardous to traffic in India or so wild as to become rodeo bulls in the States. They quickly learn how they are expected to behave.
Charolais – A large breed of cattle developed in France. This is the largest breed we are considering, with females weighing up to 2000 lbs and bulls up to 2800 lbs. They are very muscular and produce a lot of beef per cow unit. They are cold-tolerant and graze aggressively even in hot weather. They are reputed to have above-average quality beef. I have not seen any reports of the ease of handling of this breed.
Highland – Arguably one of the most recognizable breeds of cattle in the world, the Highland comes dressed to impress with its long shaggy coat of (usually) red hair. They are a medium-sized breed of cattle that is listed as Recovering by the ALBC. The breed is renowned for the quality of its beef and comprise the herd of the British royal family. They can thrive on forage that other cattle pass up and are known as light grazers, or the ultimate “green” cow. Obviously this is a cold-adapted breed of cattle, but successful herds are established as far south as Texas and Georgia so heat must not bother them too much. They are disease-tolerant and parasite-resistant. Along with having a good, even temperament, this is another breed of cattle where calving is not a problem.
So what are we going to go with? Unlike some of the less expensive animals, some of our choice here will be dictated by cost of acquiring and transporting the cattle. We may have to see what’s available to us within a short drive of our ranch.
However without money being an issue, I would lean towards giving the Highland, Murray Grey, or Red Poll a try. Lindsey may hold out for the Belted Galloway though, and I know better than to argue! This is the one group of animals I’m a little intimidated to “experiment” with due to the prohibitive cost of acquiring the animals, so I’m going to look around hard once we get there and utilize all the powers of the friendly neighbors and friendly neighborhood extension service to try and get a breed that will perform like we want it to from the start, and then breed and cull until we get a group of cattle that are adapted extremely well to our little corner of Kentucky.