What breed of cattle is the best for grass-fed beef production?

Published 18th November 2020
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The cold, hard truth is that the ideal cattle breed does not exist. However, there are some desirable traits that can be listed when the time comes to select animals that have the greatest potential for economically producing grass-fed beef with good carcass qualities. All breeds have strengths and weaknesses, so sound genetic selection is best accomplished by examining bloodlines within breeds for the characteristics desired.

Don’t miss out on the basics

According to Allen Williams, PhD who worked on a study published by The Pasture Project, before concentrating on selection for traits that affect the ability to finish on grass and forage, “our primary goal should be to produce cattle that can make a profit no matter what market they are sold into. Functional cattle will always have a place in the beef industry and will be in increasing demand.”

Related traits of importance are:

  • adaptability to your environment
  • fertility
  • soundness of feet & legs, eyes and udders.

For Williams, “if an animal is lacking in any of these traits, they will not possess longevity. Longevity is a function of all the above traits combined. If they lack adaptability, they will break down, fail to breed or rebreed, or fail to maintain adequate body condition. If fertility is subpar, then cows will skip one or more calves during their lifetime. If they have issues with feet and legs, eyes, or udders and teats, then they will not stay in the herd very long. Cattle need to be able to travel so that they can utilize available forage and not have to rely on supplementation.”

What are the desirable traits to look for?

Early-maturing calves are desirable because they will begin building muscle more quickly than later-maturing animals. In addition to early maturing, they should gain quickly so they can reach weights of 800 to 1,000 pounds / 360 to 450 kilos at ages between 16 and 24 months. Animals that have mature weights under 1,000 pounds / 450 kilos will probably finish at the proper time to produce good carcass quality.

High cutability and moderate marbling are desirable traits for grass-fed animals. Cutability is the lean yield of a carcass. The carcass with the highest cutability or yield has the largest proportion of lean meat within its grade. Marbling is intramuscular fat and is responsible for juiciness, tenderness, and flavor; however, too much marbling can give meat a fatty appearance.

Small to moderate-sized cattle, in both weight and height, work well in grass-fed beef operations because they require less forage to reach finish weights than large cattle. Breeds like Angus, Hereford, and other British origin cattle are usually good choices, but it depends on the genetics.

Our top 3 great grass-finished cattle breeds

Of course, your location, climate and farming strategy will impact the breed you’d pick. The below selection is based on what our customers told us over the year. Feel free to send us your own selection, we’ll be happy to share it!

Straight breeding is the system where only cattle of the same breed are used in the herd. When initiating a straight breeding program, select the breed with the most desirable traits for grass-fed beef. However, that no breed has every wanted trait. Straight breeding is an easy system to manage and the herd produces its own replacements. The disadvantages of straight breeding are that there is no hybrid vigour and the cattle may be less adaptable to environmental conditions and system changes.

The other option, crossbreeding, allows blending characteristics from different breeds to complement one another. Keep crossbreeding simple by using no more than three breeds. For a successful program, animals of the different breeds must be similar in size and maturing rate. Crossbreeding allows for hybrid vigor, which can improve both fertility and maternal traits by 10 to 20 percent and growth by 5 to 10 percent. Crossbred cattle are also more adaptable to changes in the environment than straight-bred. The disadvantage is that a source is needed for herd replacements.

1. Red Devon (Red Ruby or Devon Ruby)

Devon cattle are red in colour, varying in shade from a rich deep red to a light red or chestnut colour. A bright ruby red colour is preferred and accounts for their nickname, the “Red Ruby”. The hair is of medium thickness and is often long and curly during the winter, but short and sleek in summer. The switch of the tail is creamy white. Mature bulls in good working condition weigh from 1,700 lb (770 kg) to about 2,200 lb (1,000 kg). Mature cows range in weight from about 950 lb (430 kg) to about 1,300 lb (590 kg). Thus, Devons have enough size to be practical and profitable without the handicap of excessive maintenance cost. Calving problems are seldom encountered although a growing stress on using larger bulls has increased the incidence of difficult births. The functional characteristics of the Devon make them a valuable genetic tool for the commercial beef industry. The breed has long been noted for its fertility, ease of calving, docility, hardiness and ability to adapt to temperature extremes. Devons are active good “walkers” and are excellent foragers. Their ability to utilize grass and other forages efficiently has heightened their popularity in areas such as southern Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand.

2. Hereford 

The Hereford is a British breed of beef cattle that originated in the county of Herefordshire, in the West Midlands of England. It has been exported to many countries, and there are more than five million purebred Hereford cattle in over fifty nations worldwide. The breed was first exported from the United Kingdom in 1817, initially to Kentucky,[4] and spreading across the United States and Canada, through Mexico, to the great beef-raising countries of South America. Today, Hereford cattle dominate the world scene from Australasia to the Russian steppes.

The Hereford cattle are hearty, with foraging abilities and a longevity ranging to 15+ years. They are also a popular breed because of the lower overall costs for management. The bull can weigh upwards of 1,800 pounds, while the cow is 1,200 pounds. They are red-and white in color, with white horns (there is a Polled Hereford variant as well). 

3. Aberdeen Angus 

The Aberdeen Angus, sometimes simply Angus, is a Scottish breed of small beef cattle. It derives from cattle native to the counties of Aberdeenshire and Angus in north-eastern Scotland. The Angus is naturally polled and solid black or red, though the udder may be white. The native colour is black, but more recently red colours have emerged. The United Kingdom registers both in the same herd book, but in the United States they are regarded as two separate breeds: Red Angus and Black Angus. Black Angus is the most common breed of beef cattle in the US, with 332,421 cattle registered in 2017. In 2014, the British Cattle Movement Service named Angus the UK’s most popular native beef breed, and the second most popular beef breed overall.