Cattle Breeds Native to America
The beefalo is an all-American breed of cattle (or bison) developed by crossing the American bison or buffalo with domestic cattle breeds.
As early as the mid 1800s, Charles Goodnight was crossing bison and cattle. He called his animals cattalo. Charles Jesse 'Buffalo' Jones also bred cattalo in 1888. Buffalo Jones was endeavouring to breed bovines that would survive the blizzards which whipped through his area.
However, despite repeated attempts, breeders ran into several problems. Male bison over domestic cows resulted in few calves and domestic bulls over bison females resulting in fertile female calves but infertile bull calves. At long last in 1965 Jim Burnett of Montana found a fertile hybrid bull among his calves. Finally the Beefalo looked like developing into a commercial enterprise.
The general hope when crossing two breeds is to produce progeny which have the best attributes of both parents. This doesn't always happen and sometimes it's the more undesirable traits that appear. But in the case of the beefalo, the outcome of crossing bovines and bison was positive. The bison provided hardiness, ease of calving, meat quality and foraging abilities while the domestic breed provided the fertility, better milk production and a less volatile temperament. As well, hybrid vigour and genetic strength were imparted to the offspring.
There are several bovine breeds being used to produce beefalos. Older established breeds such as Angus, Brahman and Hereford are used as are some newer breeds which are themselves the result of crossbreeding. The Droughtmaster and Brangus are two of these. The true beefalo is 3/8 bison and 5/8 bovine. If an animal has more than 3/8 bison it is known as a 'bison hybrid'.
American bison are past masters at foraging and can thrive on land which would not be considered for domestic cattle. Severe climatic conditions such as famine and drought have produced genetically sound and physically tough animals. Although the calves are small at birth, they are vigorous. They begin grazing at a relatively early age and grow more quickly than their bovine counterparts. Sexual maturity occurs later than in some European breeds but they then reproduce over a longer period, bearing more calves in their lifespan.
Some of the more outstanding features of the beefalo are:
- Hardiness – the double coats and more numerous sweat glands of the beefalo (most of them) gives them greater tolerance of both hot and cold conditions.
- Lower production costs – a strong constitution, resistance to disease, adaptability, longevity and foraging abilities mean less money and time spent on husbandry issues.
- Resistance to disease
- Faster growth rates – beefalo calves begin to graze at a younger age than bovine calves thus weight gain is faster.
- Longer productive life – beefalo females can be expected to raise at least fourteen calves during their productive life.
- Cross breeding – hybrid vigour is increased by using beefalos in a cross-breeding program. The offspring will be tougher with heavier weaning weights, greater longevity and greater resistance to disease.
- Lower fat ratios – beefalos have lower levels of cholesterol and fats. The meat has a higher protein level, less calories and lower levels of total fats and saturated fats. Internal and intramuscular fat (marbling) is lower. These all add up to a healthier product for today's discerning customers.
- Less calving problems – lower birth weights would seem to indicate that weaning and yearling weights would not be acceptable but because beefalo calves start grazing early, good weights are obtained at an early age. Depending on the domestic breed, birth weights can be anywhere between 45 and 85 pound.
- Good conversion – the bison factor results in good conversion of even poor quality roughage into meat.
- A quieter disposition inherited from domestic cattle means the beefalo is easier to handle.
In 2001, the Beefalo Society of Australia was formed with the goal of promoting Beefalo and keeping ahigh standard of strict rules and regulations regarding the term 'BEEFALO' and the exchange of information and genetics.
Unfortunately, in 2005, due to the severe drought and high insurance costs plus other factors, the 'incorporated' status of the Society was discontinued. However the Society continues and has a system of DNA fingerprinting of all breeding Beefalo animals.
In the United States, the interests of the Beefalo are managed by the American Beefalo Association (ABA) (which maintains the Herdbook registry), the Beefalo Ancestry Registry and the Beefalo Meat Registry.