Ask 20 people and you will get 20 different answers–as long as they don’t all raise the same breed or you aren’t attending a breed association meeting.
The truth is, the question is incomplete. To fully get the real and best answer–which still has other factors, so there really is no “correct” answer–the question should be “What is the best breed of cattle for me?”
Different factors must be considered when answering the question, and they are different for each person and their individual circumstances and preferences. The factors to be considered are: environment, purpose, personal preference, capital investment, and available resources. This list is not exhaustive, but is a good start.
The environment the call will be run in is the most important factor to consider. Matching cattle to their environment determines the maintenance costs. A cow suited to her environment will have lower than a cow not suited to that environment. For instance, cattle that are heat tolerant as on of their inherent traits will do better in hot and tropical environments (read: cost less to maintain and will generally be more productive) than animals more suited to cooler climates.
Specific breeds developed in certain regions because the traits that were inherent in them helped them survive, reproduce, and be productive in that climate. While cattle can be kept in any climate, a drastically different climate than what the breed was developed for can easily lead to higher maintenance costs or a change to the phenotype of that particular her (adaption of those individuals to the imposed environment), non-production, and even death.
A producer in east Texas once told me that his purebred Continental cattle, after about three generations, really started to take on and display characteristics more common among tropical-native cattle. They got looser skin, their ears started getting larger and started drooping more because of their weight. The animals did not get as bulky. This was nature’s way of helping these animals deal with the heat, making them more suited to their environment.
I used to think there was no black animal that would do well in the heat of the southern US and tropical environments. The theory was that black hide absorbs the sunlight, whereas colors, like red, reflected more of the rays. After discovering Mashona cattle, I realize my blunder. The explanation of how black can be heat tolerant is that the shiny coat reflects sunlight (whereas dull, such as winter coats, absorb sunlight, heat). There is definitely more to heat tolerance than color.
Selecting the wrong cattle can lead to the worst–death. I was speaking with a gentleman in southern Missouri, discussing the environment and climate, and how it affected cattle. He said people would bring cattle from other areas of the country and within 3 years those cattle were gone, either from death or being sold because they stopped reproducing. One story he had was a stocker from the southwest US hauled pot-loads of calves up, dumped them on pasture, and at fall gathering those calves weighted less than when put on pasture.
When looking at a breed of cattle, environment is the first factor that should be considered. Unless you can and are willing to take a big hit, or pour money into an artificial environment, select a type (breed or breeds) that are suited for your environment.
Next to consider is your purpose or goals. Are you looking for beef in the freezer, milk in the fridge, both? Are you looking to breed cows and sell calves at weaning? Want to just have some bovines to knock down the weeks and mow the pasture so you don’t have to spend fuel to do it?
Similar to environments, breeds are generally developed for a purpose. Some are beef, some dairy, and some dual purpose. Some breeds were dual purpose, but then strains developed, such as Shorthorns where there is now a beef version (Shorthorn) and dairy version (milking Shorthorn).
Just a heads up: dairy cows expect (have to be) milked twice per day, in as close to 12-hour increments as possible. That’s a pretty blanket statement, but many dairy cows today do not raise calves–and produce too much milk for a single calf anyway. Dairy is completely different than beef and beyond the scope of this site so I will not go into detail.
One of the major considerations in matching your goals and purpose to the right breed, the temperament, ease of handling, and inherent breed characteristics. There are variations and anomalies within every breed: crazy Holstein cows, gentle Jersey bulls (both dairy breeds), I realize, but examples that make my point. Different breeds are known for their general docility, like Herefords. Herefords are known to be docile, but there are exceptions to the rule.
(Ok, so the video is a bad example, because the cow is doing what she should, as a good mama cow), but apparently crazy Holstein cows really are rare, or maybe so crazy that no one has time to video them and upload it to YouTube.
Gentle Jersey bull videos are pretty slim pickings, too. This was decent, at least he’s not agitated with someone being near. Note: the bull is over 3 years old.
And attack Herefords–which may be more common than crazy Holstein cows–are apparently not uploaded to YouTube or given the right keywords, either. So I am sharing this great video. Too bad bales are so expensive, I’d totally leave them out for cows to play with; I don’t know anyone that round bales straw around here.
Back to purpose: If you want to raise beef for your freezer and go get some Jersey steers, you may be a little disappointed. Not saying you can’t eat Jersey; I have a buddy that grass-finishes Jersey steers that he produces from his organic dairy. Takes him 3-4 years from birth to slaughter, but who’s counting? It will take you that long on grass, a little shorter with grain, but Jersey is a breed developed for high-quality (lots of butter fat) milk production. They are not made to convert feed into muscle (meat). They don’t have genetics to ensure tenderness, blah, blah, blah.
Here at Cow Cow Ranch, we harvest anywhere between 6-12 months (baby beef) and 13-18 months (finished beef).
Use of muscle reduces tenderness in meat–the older an animal is, the more time it has had to use the muscle, thus the longer it takes an animal to gain enough weight, put on enough fat cover, whatever the goal is, the tougher the meat will be. Genetics also contribute to how tender the meat is, with better genetics keeping the meat tender to an older age (or melt-in-your mouth at a young age).
Note: One of the reasons CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operations–feedlots) keep animals in small, confined spaces is that it restricts the animals’ movements, using the muscle less, and thereby keeping the meat more tender, even if the animal must be fed grain until it is 3 years old (36 months) in order to reach “harvest weight.”
Next on the list of things to consider for “What is the best breed for me?”: Personal preference. I know it seems silly, but no different than having a preference in the color of a vehicle or a make or model of car (go and duke it out, Ford and Chevy guys, Dodge is the way to go). If you think your cows are ugly and their mother dresses them funny, that’s not going to be so great for them. Why should you take care of something you don’t like (money and profitability excluded, beyond the scope of this piece, but will be addressed in many other articles and posts)?
Since the American Angus Association (AAA) has done such a great job marketing, most consumers believe superior cattle are black. This led to “black” versions of breeds. Some people like black, some people don’t. Thanks to the AAA and breeds following the leader, there are more breeds to choose from if you like black than there used to be.
Other personal preference traits: slack ears (droopy or hanging ears), the cattle raised by a distant relative in the past, size, overall build, other physical characteristics (phenotype), etc. There are many breeds out there. Heck, a personal preference could be to have something not many people have, some rare breed.
Next consideration: Capital investment. If you have, say, $5,000 to put into cattle, deciding the breed for you is Waygu is probably not going to work out so well; you are probably going to be disappointed. Understanding your available capital–or access to capital–will help determine your breed choice and is an important point to consider.
Going hand in hand with capital available is resources available. Often the capital available also affects the resources, as far as land and facilities. Proper facilities are very helpful, but as many an operator has proven, not absolutely necessary. Feed, on the other hand, is absolutely necessary. If you do not have enough land, you are going to need hay. Hay is money. Buying land takes money. Leasing or renting land takes money. Yes, as with everything, cattle take money.
So when someone asks, what is the best breed of cattle, remember that the question is not complete. There is no right answer, really. There are plenty of wrong answers. For people asking this question, I suggest they speak with a professional–for the cattle quick-start guide–or they study up, paying particular attention to their environment and goals. And I advise against buying that Holstein bottle baby at the sale barn.