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Choosing Cattle — Summer 2009 | Out Here Magazine

The best beef breed for you depends on your purposes

By Heather Smith Thomas
Photography by Greg Latza

You're ready to put a few beef cattle on your place; now, how do you decide what kind to select?

The choices are practically endless, with the dozens of beef breeds and composites — mixes of specific breeds into a uniform type of animal that combines the best qualities of each type.

Your choice also depends on your interest, environment, resources, and 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 room, climate, and type of pasture.

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 breed's disposition and ease of handling; some breeds 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 breed; carefully select individuals as well as breed.

As you research the breeds, you'll learn details such as Angus have good marbling ability and meat quality, and Hereford are known for feed efficiency, in addition to their placid nature.

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

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 — whether you are 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.

Heather Smith Thomas, of Salmon, Idaho, is the author of several books on raising cattle.