A true craftsman or artist in any field doesn’t set out with recognition as his goal. Rather, it is the project or mission that bears top priority. The end result must be the best that one can accomplish. “Good enough” is not part of the formula. Such was the attitude of those who, over centuries, skillfully blended the native cattle which, as Alvin Sanders terms, “[crystallized] in and about the Teeswater Valley.” Heritage Shorthorns can lay claim to being under the stewardship of more true craftsmen than any other breed. Though the cattle did have their faults, their positive traits were found desirable enough that various later stewards, employing the stock breeding system of Robert Bakewell, successfully improved the breed to the point that eventually a herd book of the breed was begun by George Coates in 1822, to keep track of such regal cattle. Under further management of additional skillful stewards, Shorthorns earned such well-deserved nicknames as, “The Universal Improver”, “The Farmer’s Cow”, and “The Mother Breed”.
In his October account of the August 1859 Edinburgh show of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, Peter McLagan, Jun., Esq., had this to say, “The improved Shorthorns are possessed of a hardy constitution, and excel all other breeds in their early maturity, and in carrying on their growth with their condition – a most valuable quality…The value of pure shorthorns to Scotch farmers generally, is for crossing with their native breeds; and here purity of blood and fineness of points is as necessary, because as profitable, as if pure herds were to be kept…We need not remark how valuable the shorthorn is to the Scotch farmer for crossing with his native breeds to produce grazing animals. It improves for fattening every breed it crosses with. This is universally admitted.” It should be no wonder to us that Shorthorn blood has contributed to the development of over 40 other breeds of cattle.
When asked to write an article about the importance of Heritage Shorthorns, I wondered how I could properly express the subject in a concise enough fashion to fit the word limitation. It is one thing to have loyalty to a favorite breed because that is the kind of cattle one likes to have around, and another to peel the onion skin away on what it is that compels one to keep that breed. One has to be honest with himself as to why one even raises cattle. For some it is merely to keep the brush down, for some the utilization of land unfit for tillage, for others merely a commodity, for others bragging rights in the coffee shop, and for some tradition and self-validation. Heritage Shorthorns are versatile enough to fit into each of those categories, however I feel we would do well to think of a much larger importance which they have; although, for numerous reasons and agendas, they have been denigrated to one of the best kept secrets the industry has ever known. Since the emphasis on the beef side of the industry is the most glaring to me, I will share a fitting example.
A number of years ago a very good friend of mine, Dr. Ron Bolze (who had been instrumental in the development and success of the Certified Angus Beef program), forwarded me a copy of a “white paper”. The paper was trying to explain why the Certified Angus Beef program (CAB) had to “change CAB carcass specifications to include Yield Grade 4 carcasses to generate an adequate supply of CAB product”. In short, the Angus cattle could not sufficiently marble unless fed longer resulting in excess fat cover.” I found it interesting that it wasn’t until ten or twelve pages into the paper that genetics was mentioned as a possible factor.
If we are ultimately in the food business, of which our cattle are a foundational element, then, we would do well to examine our own breed’s history. George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I perceive that to be the case with the “Shorthorn” breed today. Because of various motivations, most producers of “Shorthorn” cattle today have purposely or unknowingly infused so much other blood into them that, I dare to say, a good many are just mixed breed cattle. Other prominent breeds are experiencing the same issues. In chasing the elusive butterfly, the past was either unknown, ignored, or forgotten. In general, Heritage Shorthorn genetics available today offer consistent quality with acceptable performance, lower input feed efficiency, lower input management, and most often, high fertility.
The beef industry overall is ripe for a repeat of that which Robert Bruce describes of the use of Shorthorns with Aberdeen Angus in the 1830-1860’s in Scotland:
The blend of the two breeds is a mixture which produces a class of cattle having no equal as a rent-paying stock in this country; and speaking from my own observation I believe it matters little how the mixture is concocted so long as it is Shorthorn and Aberdeen-Angus, the judgment of the breeder being brought into play in determining the amount of either of the two factors.
Over a century later I experienced first-hand the very same in my commercial herd. Heritage Shorthorn bulls on commercial Angus herds could improve the quality of Certified Angus Beef in just one generation, and the heterosis would be like free pounds and money.
Quality: From personal experience with numerous feedlot trials over the years, the higher Heritage Shorthorn blood concentration in my commercial Shorthorns produced steers which were often the top farm group percentage in meeting USDA Choice or better quality carcasses. In tenderness tests they were also quite often in the “fork tender” category. Tenderness is one of the most important factors consumers have expressed for a quality eating experience. Heritage Shorthorns have well proven, even today, their ability to naturally transmit marbling and tenderness, quality traits which were bred and stamped into them since before the 1800’s.
Lower Input: Profit is a significant driver. The easiest way to increase profit is to decrease input. One of the easiest ways to decrease economic input without reducing quality is with Heritage Shorthorns. Consistently, in my experience, Heritage Shorthorns, and high percentage bloodlines are able to better function in harsher environments and on poorer forages than most other genetics. They really do rather well in a grass-fed/grass finished system, even in a somewhat “keen” environment, as Professor Bonsma (an internationally known livestock ecologist) might call it.
However, low input is most desirable in everyday management, as well. When one doesn’t have to lose sleep during calving because of the inherent ability of cows and heifers to successfully calve on their own, stress is vastly reduced. When the newborn calf is vigorous and both mother and baby instinctively get the job done without help (even first-time mothers), effort and stress is vastly reduced. When a mother does a decent job of raising her calf, maintains adequate condition, and breeds back in timely fashion, management is relaxed and stress is vastly reduced. In other words, life is OK. In all these things, Heritage Shorthorns perform above average, and they are most quick to recognize and cooperate with their human stewards. All they ask is basic care and a chance to do what they were created and developed to do; work for their master. Heritage Shorthorns truly deserve the nickname “Mother Breed”.
Anyone privileged to have really experienced the practical functionality of Heritage Shorthorns knows full well the superior disposition, calving ease, vigor and growth, production of milk, high quality meat, and ease of management. All these areas are of vital importance to the individual steward involved in the day-to-day management. Too often external factors and extenuating circumstances generate frustrations, and one must not let the blame for this frustration be placed upon the cattle. I speak from numerous experiences caused by people in several arenas, but at the end of the day, those wonderful cattle were still there. They didn’t know the politics, personal agendas, and manipulation, they simply wanted to live and do their job. The depth of quality in Heritage Shorthorns make it much easier to walk away from the established circles and create a niche market. How does one quantify the importance of such freedom?
It is almost 200 years since the Coates Herd Book was established to record the heritage of such an amazingly valuable breed of cattle, and yet, here in 2019, we find less than 3500 Heritage (or Native) Shorthorns left in the entire world. The main system of beef production has overstepped the bounds of practicality in many ways and could certainly benefit from what Heritage Shorthorns can bring to the scene. With the significant increase of health consciousness among consumers, the value of grass-fed/grass-finished beef is as high as I can ever remember, and Heritage Shorthorns really shine in that arena. The responsibility to skillfully carry the Heritage Shorthorn baton presented centuries ago is not a novelty or fad. These rare and limited genetics, which are clearly unique clusters in the DNA map of the bovine species, possess the ability and versatility to renew many qualities virtually ignored by the industry. Though we may be few in number and scoffed at by some as “romantic” breeders, each of us who are stewards of these unique genetics have a serious responsibility to their faithful preservation, not only in purity of the genetics, but the accuracy of their pedigrees as well; to their propagation, not only to preserve the gene-pool, but with the skill and discipline of the many illustrious craftsmen of the past; and to their promotion, not merely as a quick fix for the wreck others have created or the novelty of having something rare and different, but that future generations may not be deprived of this amazing resource for the good of all who utilize beef.
Author Profile: Roy Lovaas
As a result of an accidental mating between an old Hereford / Holstein cow who managed to swim a waterhole to meet up with the neighbor’s “native” Shorthorn bull, Roy Lovaas and family have been raising Shorthorns since 1986. Their Hidden Hill Farm (HHF) Shorthorn herd was involved in 4H, State, and National Shorthorn shows until 2003. They were the first breeders to capture both the Grand and Reserve Champion Shorthorn carcass rating at the North American International Livestock Exposition at Louisville, Kentucky in the same year, and they have participated in numerous carcass feedlot trials. Roy has served on the boards of many cattle organizations including a term as a Director of the American Shorthorn Association. His interest in Heritage “Native” Shorthorns was piqued as result of dissatisfaction with the available gene-pool of Modern Shorthorns and a chance visit to Haumont Shorthorns in Nebraska. There he discovered how rare Heritage Shorthorns were and set about to gather as much information on them as he could. He then accumulated semen on a large number of old Heritage bulls, and did embryo transplant work. Roy contributed over 100 “Heritage” DNA samples for a cattle gene mapping study being done by Dr. Jerry Taylor at the University of Missouri. Roy continues to raise Shorthorns for both the purebred and commercial markets. Roy and his wife of 42 years have lived in East Central,Minnesota since 1986. They raised 3 daughters, plus nieces & nephews, and now have 11 grandchildren.
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