British Cattle Breeds

The Shorthorn

The Shorthorn cattle breed is one of Great Britain's native livestock breeds and has had a considerable impact on the beef industry from very early days. They have also influenced other breeds, in particular the Santa Gertrudis.

There had been cattle in the north of England for many hundreds of years, some of which had been introduced from northern Europe. As early as 1580, a superior type of cattle with short horns was to be found in Northumberland, Durham and York. These varied in colour but included roans and pied beasts.

The Shorthorn had its origins on the north-east coast of England where the Tees River divides Durham and York counties. The very fertile river valley produced high quality pasture and crops. The large cattle which frequented this valley were known as Teeswater cattle. They were first known as 'Durham' cattle and evolved by crossing Dutch dairy types with local animals.

Soon, each different area had its distinct type of bovine. By the 17th century, Somerset and Gloucestershire had red cattle and Lincolnshire pied cattle. These types had heavy carcasses but their meat was dark and coarsely grained. From 1730 to 1780, local breeders began to take more interest in breeding for certain qualities. They tried to improve their herds by selecting compact, thick frames plus early maturing and early fattening ability. Accurate records of pedigrees were kept and recorded in Volume 1 of the English Herd Book. However publication of the Herd Book did not take place until 1822.

Compared to today's beef breeds, the early Teeswater or Shorthorn had a number of faults. Although large in size with wide backs and deep forequarters they lacked consistency. Narrow chests, long legs, slab sides and uneven distribution of flesh were some of the problems breeders were faced with. On the positive side, they were good milkers and under good conditions they fattened readily producing ample amounts of tallow which was an important by-product from slaughtered animals.

Then, in 1726, the 'father of animal breeding' Robert Bakewell demonstrated the great advantages to be had by judicious line-breeding and inbreeding. In combination with ruthless culling practices, desirable traits could be 'set' in a much shorter time span than was previously the case. His ideas revolutionised livestock breeding methods.

Charles and Robert Colling are often seen as the founders of the Shorthorn. The brothers, who farmed near Darlington, developed a systematic breeding program. They visited Bakewell around 1783, studied his methods then applied them to their own herds. Several of their stock were exhibited to the public, doing much to advertise and promote the new breed. One steer was known as the 'Durham Ox' and reportedly weighed 3,400 pound. A barren heifer, 'the White Heifer that Travelled', weighed 2,300. Most of the Shorthorn herds in the United States and Great Britain can trace their ancestry back to the herds of the Collings brothers.

Another who was instrumental in improving the Shorthorn was Thomas Booth of Killerby, Yorkshire. Around 1790, he began to concentrate his efforts on improving the meat and fleshing qualities. He had been producing beef cattle for some time but now bought Colling bulls and bred them to large cows which he had sourced from elsewhere. Once he had beefy animals with strong constitutions, he then inbred to fix the traits.

Thomas Booth's son, Richard, then sought to improve the forequarters of the cattle. This was in 1814. He was also striving to get a straighter underline. Another breeder, Thomas Bates, concentrated on heavy milking qualities and is credited as being the founder of the dual purpose Shorthorn.

The cattle springing from those of Booth and Bates were sometimes known as 'English Shorthorns'. In Scotland, brothers Amos and Anthony Cruickshank were developing a more blocky, thicker type with more flesh and these were referred to as 'Scotch Shorthorns'.

In 1958, the Herd Book had separate sections for beef and dairy strains. In 1976, a desire to improve the muscling of the breed saw the introduction of Main-Anjou blood. In 2001, the Herd Book again closed to outside influences.

Shorthorn HeiferCredit:

Australia's first cattle were mostly Shorthorn types. The first registered Shorthorns arrived in 1825. The new settlement needed animals that could be used, not just for milk and meat, but also for draught purposes. The Shorthorn supplied all these needs, having a quiet disposition suited to draught work. Photographs of bullock teams of the early days show a preponderance of Shorthorn type cattle. Of the available Shorthorns, the best were developed to produce the Australian Illawarra Shorthorn, named for the Illawarra district in New South Wales. There are now distinct strains of Shorthorn in Australia including the Beef Shorthorn, the Poll Shorthorn, the Dairy Shorthorn and the Australian Shorthorn.

Australia imported Bos indicus cattle early in its history with more importations occurring in 1932, but up until the 1970s, Shorthorns made up 99% of the beef cattle north of the Tropic of Capricorn. Few breeds could thrive in the extreme conditions of northern Australia and for almost 150 years, the adaptable and tough Shorthorn had had the area to itself.

But the Australian Shorthorns then faced stiff opposition from Bos indicus breeds which were increasingly being kept in northern Australia while European breeds were coming into the more temperate areas. Consumer demands have now led to an increase in feedlotting. The market in Japan has seen producers looking for an early maturing animal with good marbling traits and the Shorthorn breed is again as popular as any.

The first Shorthorns into America were often known as Durhams. Both milk and beef breed types were first imported into Virginia in 1783. The milking Shorthorn is docile and high-yielding. Being large, she has a good salvage value when her productive life comes to an end. The milk is nutritious and calves are born easily, are vigorous and fast growing. The first volume of the American Herdbook was published in 1846. The American Shorthorn Breeders' Association (ASBA) was founded in 1882. In 1912, the Milking Shorthorn Club was formed within the ASBA. The work of the Club was taken over in 1948 when the American Milking Shorthorn Society was incorporated. Milking Shorthorns were declared a dairy breed in 1969, becoming members of the Purebred Dairy Cattle Association in 1972.

Both beef and dairy Shorthorns are now found throughout the country. Around 60% of the registered Beef Shorthorns in the country are Polled Shorthorns and are genetically hornless.

The Shorthorn can be red, white, roan or a mix of these. The majority are roan. Some strains are polled and some horned. The bulls are virile and active. Commercial bulls in particular have good longevity as breeders. Dairy strains tend to be slightly smaller. Beef Shorthorns also have smaller frames and are early maturing. They are compact and low-set and rectangular in shape. They are efficient foragers and docile in nature, producing top quality vealers and prime weaners. Shorthorn cross steers have a good feed to meat conversion rate producing succulent, tender beef and good marbling. The average weight of calves at birth is 85 pound.

Although one of Britain's native livestock breeds, it is in no danger of extinction like some of the others.