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    Choosing the Best Cow Breeds: How to Choose Cattle

    Authored by Katie Navarra

    Over 250 cattle breeds exist worldwide, with around 80 readily available to farmers in the United States. With so many breeds, how do you decide which is best for you?

    Your choice of cattle breed depends on your interests, the type of farm environment, available resources, and how you plan to manage the herd.

    Gathering as much information as possible will lead to a better, more informed decision. Do your homework and research, check out breed associations’ websites, and talk to neighbors about the kinds of cattle they raise. Find out which breeds are most common in your area, as experienced farmers and breeders can answer questions and offer advice.

    Selecting cattle for your operation involves many details. Here’s what you need to know and research to make the best choice for your farm.

    Making cattle farm plans

    Choosing the right kind of livestock for your farm requires a plan. Knowing the reasons behind your interest in owning cattle can help decide which age, breed, sex, and number of animals you buy.

    Ask yourself?

    • Why do I want to raise cattle?
    • Do I want to raise beef or dairy cattle for profit?
    • Where is my market?

    Whether you’re interested in raising beef, dairy, or a cow that can serve both purposes, knowing your end goal and the market you’ll be selling to is critical. Once you outline your goals, then ask yourself:

    • What is my farm environment, including weather patterns?
    • What resources do I have or need to raise my chosen cattle breed?
    • What cattle management practices do I want to use?

    For beef cattle production:

    • Do you want to sell calves, yearlings, or finished cattle?
    • Do you want to raise grass-finished or grain-fed animals?

    For dairy cattle production:

    • Do you want to sell to a fluid-based or cheese market?
    • Do you want to incorporate grazing or use a freestall barn?

    Herd size influences breed suitability

    In either type of cattle farming operation, you’ll also want to consider whether you want a small herd or plan to own more.

    If you want to own just one cow, a dual-purpose breed such as Shorthorn, Brown Swiss, Simmental, or Dexter may be a good fit as a milk a cow for your family while raising a calf for meat or have an animal to show at the county fair. However, if your goal is to establish 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.

    Both dairy and beef cattle can be crossbred or purebred (also called straightbred) breeds. Purebred cattle like the Angus, Hereford, Holstein, Jersey, and others have a lineage that is recorded and is used for selective breeding programs. Crossbred cattle can have the advantage of developing higher quality traits from the average straightbred parents of the lineages for each. In both cases, registered purebred and crossbred cows have a higher market value (and can cost more to buy) than “grade” or unregistered animals.

    Breed characteristics

    Before buying, learn about a breed’s disposition and ease of handling; some are flightier and higher-strung than others. If this is your first time handling cattle, choose a polled breed, meaning its horns have been removed because they are easier and safer to handle. Remember, animals of good or poor disposition exist in every cattle breed; carefully select individuals and breed if possible.

    As you research the different cattle breeds, you will learn the details of each breed, including production averages and suitability for specific climates and management practices. For example, some breeds, such as Galloway and Scotch Highland, are well adapted to frigid temperatures, while Brahman, Brangus, Senepol, Santa Gertrudis, and other Brahman crosses and composites do well in hot climates.

    For example, in beef cattle, Angus cattle have good marbling ability and meat quality, and Herefords are known for feed efficiency and calm nature. On the other hand, continental breeds, such as Charolais, Limousin, Simmental, Gelbvieh, and Chianina, are popular if you prefer the added size and higher weaning weights in calves. And in dairy cattle, Holsteins are often chosen for high milk production, while Jersey and Brown Swiss are popular for the high fat and protein in their milk.

    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 achieve that size. Often, the hardier, smaller cow that needs less feed and can get by on marginal pastures is the most profitable, especially if a cow produces a calf every year. In addition, she may produce more pounds of beef in her lifetime because she stays in the herd longer.

    Also, remember that you can usually keep more small cows, such as Dexter, Corriente, or Scotch Highland, on a certain acreage. This is because they will raise more pounds of calves from that pasture than a herd of larger cows since you’ll have more calves.

    You can choose from several breeds that can meet your needs. Unless you already have a favorite, you should visit other farms to observe their cattle, attend workshops and agricultural field days or study literature and websites to help you decide.

    More information about raising cattle

    Want to be a cattle farmer but don't know where to start? Check out these 9 tips for raising cows on your land.
    Livestock feeds provide animals with the protein, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins and minerals they need. Learn more about cattle feeding and nutrition.