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How to Choose the Best Breed of Cattle

By Heather Smith Thomas
Photography by Greg Latza

You're ready to put a few bulls and cows on your farm. Now, how do you decide what breed of cattle to choose?

The choices are practically endless when you consider the dozens of beef breeds and composite breeds, or mixed breeds that combine the best characteristics of other established cattle breeds.

Your choice of cattle breed also depends on your interests, the type of farm environment, resources, and your ability to care for them.

If you want just one cow, you might select a dual-purpose breed such as Shorthorn, Brown Swiss, Simmental, or Dexter that could serve as a family milk cow while raising a calf for meat. If you prefer a herd, your selection will depend on available space on your farm, the local climate and weather patterns, and the type of pasture you have planted.

Some breeds, such as Galloway and Scotch Highland, are well adapted to very cold climates, while Brahman, Brangus, Senepol, Santa Gertrudis, and other Brahman crosses and composites do well in hot climates.

Consider a cattle breed's disposition and ease of handling; some breeds of cattle are more flighty and high strung than others. If you want cattle that your children can handle, select a breed with a mellow nature, such as a Hereford. Keep in mind, however, that animals of good or poor disposition exist in every cattle breed; carefully select individuals as well as breed if possible.

As you research the different cattle breeds, you will learn the details of each breed. For example, Angus cattle have good marbling ability and meat quality, and Herefords are known for feed efficiency and a placid nature.

Continental breeds such as Charolais, Limousin, Simmental, Gelbvieh, and Chianina, are popular if you prefer added size and higher weaning weights in calves.

The most profit, however, may not come from the animal that grows the biggest or gives the most milk if it takes more feed to do so. Often the hardier, smaller cow that needs less feed and can get by on marginal pastures is the most profitable, especially if she produces a calf every year. She may produce more pounds of beef in her lifetime because she stays in the herd longer.

Also keep in mind that you can usually keep a larger number of small cows, such as Dexter, Corriente, or Scotch Highland, on a certain acreage. They will raise more pounds of calves from that pasture than a herd of larger cows, since you'll have more calves.

In the final analysis, your choice of breeds will depend on your purpose. Are you raising them for profit, for fun, for your children to show, or as grass-finished or grain-fed animals?

Numerous choices are out there that can fit your purpose, and unless you already have a favorite, visit other farms to look at their cattle or study the literature and websites of different breeds to help make the selection.