An Overview and Comparison of Modern Beef Breeds

Published on Wed, 08/23/2023 - 11:03am

An Overview and Comparison of Modern Beef Breeds.

 By Jaclyn Krymowski.

"There is as much variation within a breed as between breeds.”

You may have heard that line before, and while it may contain a nugget of truth it can’t entirely be taken at face value. In the landscape of today’s industry, we’re seeing rapid development happening across breeds - and also big changes  due to hybridization.

That said, it can be a good practice to go back to basics and examine the fundamentals of what makes a breed a breed, and why we have such variation. In addition to their strengths and weaknesses, breeds also play a role in mating decisions, not only in the beef herd, but also for dairies looking to select a beef bull to breed to better manage their heifer inventories.

Overall Breed Considerations
In Hardin and Brown’s University of Georgia beef extension bulletin, Selecting a Beef Breed, they discuss how the decisions for either purebred or commercial operations require thought on the breed that will be profitable. Looking at how the animal grows and how breeding can impact the profitability of future generations in the herd.

“The one unique aspect of the purebred industry is the high-profile advertising and educational programs, such as field days,” write Hardin and Brown. “The purebred cattle market often provides a higher return per cow unit, but at the expense of higher maintenance costs, higher breeding costs, more management inputs and greater risks.”

Evaluating the expenses and expected profit can help decide how to proceed forward whether that is selecting a different breed or needing to change the breeding program.

Calf crop percentage, weaning weight, market price and recurring annual costs are all important factors in the commercial operation. Exclusive to calves, the weaning or market weight can be affected by genetics, milk production of the dam,  availability of pasture or feed, along with the environmental conditions.

Breeds the World Over
Breeds developed characteristics that helped them perform optimally in  their region and climate of origin. Cattle breeders in the U.S. have developed their cattle to excel in growth rates, performance, maternal focus and carcass qualities that are more similar over the past 25 years. Breed registries have become more accepting of those breeding the positive traits of two different breeds through crossbreeding.

Most of our British breeds were developed in England and Scotland and were designed to transform grasses into high-quality beef, making them the foundation stock of many U.S. herds. An ideal female could raise a calf that would easily fatten off the grass. Centuries later, these breeds  still excel at being economical converters of forages to protein with additional traits that excel in fertility, longevity, marbling, and ability to thrive in environments with limited feed resources.

The continental European breeds, alternatively, were developed as dual-purpose animals (used as dairy and beef). The males were often used as draft animals and then provided a source of beef. These breeds tend to be larger in size, coarser, and heavier milk producers.

Each breed has its strengths that outweigh other breeds, but depending on what an operation is looking for one strength could be another’s weakness.

Here is an at-a-glance guide to some of the most popular U.S. breeds, plus a few outliers:

Angus are genetically polled with traits including fast growth, marbled meat, and maternal ability (aggressive, protective and producing plenty of milk). Both angus and angus-cross calves are popular with feedlot buyers due to their excellent carcass traits and are popular with many ranchers because of their maternal abilities.

Herefords are large-framed and heavy-boned British breeds known especially for their strong maternal traits like milk production and early maturity.

Shorthorns originated as dual-purpose cattle with small birth weights but fast-growing calves. Milking ability, fast growth, and tractability make this breed a good choice for small farmers who want to raise beef. They  are also a very popular pick in the stock show world.

Simmentals originated in Switzerland as a dairy cow breed. These cattle are noted for rapid growth, large frame, and milk production and have become popular for crossbreeding to create larger, fast-growing cattle. They are noted for their slower maturity rates compared to their British counterparts.

Charolais are known for their large frame and heavy muscling due to their origins as French draft animals. This makes them great at muscling and putting on weaning weight. Right now we see them used in terminal crosses which are attractive to feedlot buyers.

Limousins are another French breed with good muscling but are finer-boned than charolais. However, they tend to be good calvers and grow quite rapidly. They have been crossed with other breeds to increase the size and weaning weight. Calves grow faster and larger than British breeds, however, they are slower maturing and do not finish as quickly.

Gelbviehs are a true multi-purpose breed for milk, meat and drafting with roots in the Austria/Germany region. They are known especially for their faster growth and maturity rates compared to other continental breeds along with fertility and calving ease traits.

Chianinas are Italian cattle originally used as draft animals. They are the largest breed, with large frames and heavy muscling that make them popular in many crossbreeding programs.

American Brahman cattle were developed from several strains of various Indian breeds. Another popular inclusion in crossbreeding, they have small birth weights but fast growth along with desirable health traits including heat-tolerance and resistance to ticks and insects.

Beefmaster is an American breed produced by crossing brahman with shorthorn and hereford. These heat-tolerant animals excel in hardiness, disposition, fertility, growth, conformation, and milk production.

Santa Gertrudis originated from the renowned King Ranch (in Texas). They are a cross between brahman and shorthorns. They are heat-tolerant and are great for beef production in grazing environments. They are known for easy calving, good maternal instinct, and  improved beef quality over the Brahman.

Dexters are the smallest beef cattle breed and originated from southern Ireland. They were originally bred by farmers with small holdings in the mountains, where they foraged in rough country. These small cattle need less feed and thrive in a variety of climates. They mature and are finished in approximately 12-18 months.

Wagyu cattle originated in Japan and are known for their highly-marbled, tasty meat. Usually, small farmers often process and sell the meat directly to consumers or high-end retail and artisan dining establishments.

These breed characteristics are of course ideals. Environment can highly influence results for each breed. When selecting a breed or individual animal, keep in mind that cattle developed under certain conditions may perform better or worse in similar conditions.

There are positives and negatives to every breed. And what works for you, may not work for another, and vice versa. A prime example is climate performance. Breeds that do well in  cool climates may be a good fit for one farmer. Breeds that handle  the heat of warmer climates may be better for another. Additionally, there are some breeds that are better finishers  on grass than others.

Overall, selecting a breed is not always an easy decision and should be based on the goals of the operation, environment and desired traits.