British Cattle Breeds

The Aberdeen Angus

The Aberdeen Angus (also called simply Aberdeen or Angus) cattle breed is endemic to Scotland and is one of Great Britain's many native breeds that takes its name from its original geographical location.

Prior to any recorded history of polled cattle, prehistoric carvings of hornless cattle have been found in the Scottish counties of Aberdeen and Angus. Aberdeen had local cattle called Buchan 'humlies' (meaning hornless) while the cattle endemic to Angus were called 'doddies' (also meaning hornless). These breeds were to blend to become the Aberdeen Angus, although the animals are often known just by one of the two names.

The United Kingdom has several well-defined breeds of polled cattle. These are the Aberdeen Angus, the Galloway and the red polled English breeds Norfolk and Suffolk.

Angus CowCredit: Wikimedia

Aberdeen Angus Cow (1904)

Aberdeen, Banff, Kincardine and Angus all lie in the northeastern part of Scotland. They all have coastline and mountainous or hilly country. Although the topography of the area is rough, the climate is temperate as the warm Gulf Stream tempers the climate in the winter and keeps the summers cool. The rainfall is well distributed and there is plenty of grass. The valley of Strathmore in Angus in particular is acknowledged as one of the most productive agricultural areas of Scotland. The valley also played a large role in the development of the Aberdeen Angus.

By the start of the 19th century, continual crossing of Aberdeen and Angus cattle had resulted in a distinct breed and the polled cattle of the Buchan area had an enviable reputation at market. Originally these cattle were short and stout. Hugh Watson of Keillor, Scotland set out to breed black, hornless cattle He is often regarded as the founder of the Aberdeen. Old Jock, a bull owned by Watson has the number '1' in the Scotch Herd Book. Old Granny, one of his cows, produced 29 calves in 35 years. Watson exhibited prolifically and did much to popularize the breed. Most Aberdeens trace back to Old Jock and Old Granny, although another foundation cow, Black Meg 43, has more cattle tracing to her than to any other female, Old Granny included. Watson was a keen exhibitor and the black polled cattle were soon becoming increasingly recognized.

A major threat occurred in 1810 when the Colling brothers of England sold a Shorthorn bull, Comet, for $5,000. This created tremendous publicity and Shorthorns were soon being used throughout Scotland over native stock as a way of generally improving the local cattle. The Aberdeen was in danger of becoming extinct.

William McCombie (1805-1880) then came to the fore and was a colossus in the history of the black cattle. McCombie's cattle had size and symmetry together with a quiet character and strong constitution. He had major successes in the show ring in England, Scotland and France. He showed great foresight in managing and planning the improvement of the Aberdeen at his Tillyfour property. When young, McCombie followed in the footsteps of his father and successfully traded in cattle. Then, in 1829, he became a tenant farmer. He was hugely successful in the show ring culminating in winning $500 as an cattle exhibitor from a foreign country and another $500 for the best group of beef-producing animals overall at the International Exposition in Paris in 1878.

Apart from exhibiting in breeding classes, McCombie entered steers in market shows. His most famous entry was Black Prince. After the steer won the Birmingham and Smithfield Shows in 1867 at four years of age, he was taken to Windsor Castle where he was inspected by none other than Queen Victoria. Later, at Christmas, the Queen ate some beef from the steer! Several years after this Queen Victoria paid a personal visit to Tillyfour. Such publicity paid huge dividends for that herd in particular and for the breed in general. A further distinction for McCombie came when he became the first Scottish tenant farmer to be elected to the House of Commons.

In 1873, four Angus bulls were sent to Kansas. George Grant exhibited two of these at the Kansas City (Missouri) Livestock Exposition. Because ranchers there were more familiar with Shorthorns and Texas longhorns, the polled black cattle were regarded with some scorn. However, when crossed with longhorn mothers the progeny wintered better and were thicker and heavier at weaning. Most had no horns. Before long the Aberdeen was flavour of the month – so to speak. Between 1878 and 1883, some twelve hundred cattle were imported into the United States, mostly to the Midwest.

The Ballindalloch stud was one stud to export a large number of foundation stock to the United States and to other countries. South America, New Zealand, USA, Canada and Australia all had importations of Aberdeens during the 20th century.

The Aberdeen matures at around two years of age. At this point the carcass is high-yielding with fine to medium textured meat which is nicely marbled. First-time calvers are sometimes mated to Aberdeen bulls as the newborn calf is relatively small. This lessens the risk of calving problems. Aberdeen cows calve easily and have a strong maternal instinct. A calm disposition means weight is gained more quickly. The cattle are hardy, adaptable and disease-resistant.

The gene for hornlessness and black colour are dominant and are passed on to progeny. The coat is of short, black hair although some white is allowed on the udder. Weight ranges up to 2,000 pounds or a little more. The breed does well under range conditions producing succulent, tender beef. In 2005, the Aberdeen was the most popular beef breed in the United States.

The breed also has a recessive gene for red colour and there is now a red strain. In the United States, black Angus may be referred to as 'Black Angus' and in 1917 the American Angus Association register was restricted to solid black animals only. In 1954, the Red Angus Association of America was established.

Angus BullCredit: Wikimedia

The Aberdeen has been instrumental in the formation of several other breeds. During the first half of the 20th century, the Brangus (black, polled cattle) and Red Brangus (red, polled cattle) were developed and are 5/8 Angus and 3/8 Brahman. Increased disease resistance, hardiness and mothering abilities were contributed by the Brahman while Angus blood resulted in better carcass formation, higher fertility rates and higher milk yields. Research has proven that the Brangus adapts better to coastal climates and calves weigh more at weaning.

The Aberdeen is also responsible for the creation of the Murray Grey, which is a very popular breed in Australia. It originated in southern New South Wales when a roan Shorthorn produced only silvery-grey calves when mated to an Aberdeen.

A grey bull was then used over Angus cows. By the early 1970s, Murray Greys were winning carcass competitions. It is a preferred import by the Japanese because of the high quality of its meat and easy fleshing.