British Cattle Breeds
The Sussex cattle breed, like its country cousin, the Sussex chicken, has gradually developed over many years. Cattle known simply as 'red cows' or 'red cattle' have occupied the densely forested counties of Kent, Surrey and Sussex from before the time of the Norman Conquest. These red cattle were multi-purpose and from them a number of breeds have been developed. The North Devon, Hereford, Red Poll and Lincoln Red all owe their origins to these ancestors with the dark red coats and long, strong horns.
In these early times, these bullocks were absolutely essential as draught animals. They were powerful and active. The land they worked was heavy and holding and the Sussex remained heavily boned and muscled with large shoulders and necks. They were thrifty to keep on the poor quality land and, while many other areas were changing to horse power, the Wealden counties and South Downs stayed with oxen.
In 'Agriculture of Sussex', written in 1793 by Arthur Young, he remarks on the Sussex cattle; the delicacy of their flesh, the fineness of their hides and the dark red colour. As horses gradually took over from oxen, the Sussex developed as a beef breed. Breeders began to concentrate on a good colour and beef qualities. In 1874, an official herd book was published. Calves born from 1840 onwards were included in the book and registered with the Sussex Cattle Society. The Society became incorporated in 1890.
Modern breeders seek to retain the genetics of the breed whilst producing plenty of prime beef. The meat is fine textured and full of flavour. The Sussex efficiently converts grass to beef. It is docile and tough and fits in well with the shift towards a more organic, eco-friendly agricultural system. Cows cope with poor quality pasture, rarely have problems calving and have plenty of milk for the calves. Young stock will thrive without needing concentrates. By 21 to 24 months, steers can weigh from 600 to 630kg. This breed is not fussy about its food source and will graze marshland, scrub and other rather unpalatable vegetation with little or no ill effects.
The Sussex has a smooth, rich, red-brown coat. The tail has a creamy white switch and the horns are white. It is possible nowadays to access naturally polled strains. In colder climates, the sleek summer coat is shed in favour of a rapidly growing, thicker, curlier coat. Cows measure about 135cm at the shoulder and weigh around 585kg. Bulls are taller at 145cm and weigh about 950kg.
The Sussex has good longevity. With a long history as draught animals, they have retained a quiet, placid disposition and are easy to handle. They have strong legs and feet and have no problems travelling quite long distances. The calves are small at 30 to 40kg but this allows for easy births. The breed has a high fertility rate and cows in commercial herds are still raising calves well into their teens. They are early maturing and maintain good condition even under adverse circumstances.
They carry a Bos indicus factor which means they cope well with heat and drought. The colour of the skin and a high number of sweat glands help them cope with tropical conditions. They are not susceptible to tick borne diseases.
The benefits of rearing Sussex are becoming better known and the breed can now be found in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States.