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This article appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of the ALBC newsletter. ALBC members receive 6 bi-monthly newsletters that contain articles about the breeds of livestock and poultry that we work to conserve as well as the people involved in these efforts. Members also receive an annual breeders directory that provides contact information for ALBC members who have breeding stock available, as well a list of products from these breeds that they offer for sale.

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A Modern History of Ancient White Park Cattle in North America
By Wes Henthorne

Ancient White Park cattle in North America have made some large strides in the last 20 years. In 1989, there were fewer than 20 purebred females of breeding age on the North American continent. In 2010, there will be over 600 calves born as the population continues to grow. This year also marks a milestone for the growth of the breed as the status has been changed from Critical to Threatened on the ALBC Conservation Priority List. The following outlines the challenges and successes the breed has faced throughout its history.


This breed has its past truly rooted in the midst of antiquity. Some of the earliest historic records from Britain mention the breed. While historians have disputed whether the cattle are descended from wild aurochs or domestic cattle introduced by the Romans, it is clear that the wild, white cattle herds of medieval times originated in the 13th century. There are several ancient herds still in existence today that date from that time. Familiar herd names in the breed that date back hundreds of years include Dynevor, Chartley, and Cadzow. The famous Chillingham herd also dates from this time but has been run as a feral closed herd for centuries.

The story of how White Park cattle came to the United States starts in Britain just prior to the outbreak of World War II. Anxious to protect centuries of heritage in the face of a possible Nazi invasion, a very small number of White Park calves were shipped to the Toronto zoo. These animals were subsequently shipped to the Bronx zoo for safekeeping. The zoo determined that keeping domestic cattle was not a long-term priority for them and they contacted the King Ranch in Texas to provide a home for the cattle.

The cattle stayed at the King Ranch from the early 1940s until the early 1980s when the entire herd was sold to the Moeckly family in Polk City, Iowa. The Moeckly’s culled the herd for type and maintained the ancient horned animals separately from their more commercial herd of similarly marked but polled cattle. In the late 1980s, the Moeckly’s sold a few heifers to Seed Savers Exchange, a single heifer to Joywind Rare Breed Conservancy in Canada, and the remainder of the herd to the B Bar Ranch in Montana. The herds established in Iowa and Montana were managed throughout the 1990s with two goals in mind. The first goal was to maintain the genetics of the small population and the second goal was to simply increase the population numbers.

Joywind Farm, Seed Savers, Mark Fields, and the B Bar Ranch worked very closely together in the early 1990s. Two bulls were exported to Canada to help that small program get off the ground. Because half of the cows purchased by the B Bar Ranch lacked a legible Bang’s tattoo or sufficient documentation of brucellosis vaccination, they were not allowed to travel to Montana. This meant that half of the herd would remain in Iowa and half would be kept on the ranch in Montana. The breeders sought help from Dr. Phil Sponenberg to develop a strategy for maintaining as much genetic breadth in the tiny population as possible. Dr. Sponenberg recommended a closed herd and not engaging in a breeding-up program to increase numbers. He sorted the cattle into groups based on blood type and suggested a three linebreeding system to keep as much genetic material active as possible. It became apparent that there were not enough cattle in the population at that time to be successful with a three line system, so a simpler two line system was adopted. Mark Fields, Seed Savers, and the B Bar Ranch worked very closely together for the next several years to coordinate breeding efforts by exchanging bulls and using sires for a short period of time to keep them from overwhelming the genetics of the small population. The goal at the beginning and for many years was to simply increase the number of Ancient White Park cattle. There was a combined target goal of 200 breeding females before cows would be sold to other breeders.

With great patience and virtually no culling, the total population of Ancient White Parks reached the target of 200 breeding females in 2002. After many years of responding to inquiries about the sale of cattle with “not yet - we are building numbers” the answer was about to change to “yes, with a few qualifiers.” In order to assure that the sale of breeding animals would result in the growth of the breed and adherence to the established conservation breeding plan, a policy of selling starter herds of 10 females and a bull (or semen) was adopted. Additional requirements for buyers included adequate facilities and an appropriate amount of experience in handling and caring for cattle. Ayrshire Farm in Upperville, Virginia, responded to the ad and purchased a herd of 31 cows/heifers and a bull in the summer of 2003. This was the only sale of a starter herd until late 2005 when a herd was sold to Alec Bradford in southern Virginia.

The starter herd program was not getting animals placed, so another tack was taken in the summer of 2005. The B Bar Ranch hosted a Slow Food dinner that featured grass-finished Ancient White Park beef. The event featured strip loins from two-year-old animals. The beef was a huge hit and led to efforts to sell grass-finished White Park beef to help keep the population matched to the resources available. The Real Food Market and Deli in Helena, Montana, was the first regular retailer for the beef and is still featuring it prominently.

The beef sales were a huge turning point for the breed. It all went back to Carolyn Christman’s mantra from so many early ALBC conferences, “If you want to save a breed, they have to have a job!” A job had finally been found for the Ancient White Parks! The cattle that sell at a substantial discount to the commercial market at auction produced a tasty, flavor-filled, trendy, and desirable beef that commanded a premium over the commercial market in the retail meat case. There are currently four herds of White Park cattle whose beef is being sold successfully into premium markets.

The Society

When the cattle were purchased from the Moeckly family in the late 1980s they included a registry (incorporated in the state of New Hampshire) for the animals that were sold. The new breeders decided to form a new organization incorporated in Montana, and the Ancient White Park Cattle Society of North America was born. The initial board included Herman Warsh and Maryanne Mott, owners of the B Bar Ranch, Kent Whealy, Executive Director of Seed Savers Exchange, and Wes Henthorne, manager of the B Bar Ranch. Current board members are Maryanne Mott, Aaron Whaley, Marise Stewart, and Wes Henthorne.

Early items of business included establishing breed standards, a registry and rules for registration, and a fee structure. The breed standards of the White Park Cattle Society in the United Kingdom provided a good model for establishing breed standards, but they also presented a dilemma. In the United Kingdom, non-white cattle had recently been ruled ineligible for registration (there is a recessive non-white, almost always black gene present in the cattle in the U.K. and North America). While the question of registering the black animals seemed simple with the limited numbers (20 breeding females), a decision had to be reached about whether a breed was being conserved, which would favor not registering black animals, or a population of very rare genetics was being conserved, which would favor keeping as many genes in the pool as possible. The decision reached at the time was to register black animals but not to allow black bulls to be used for breeding. This decision is still questioned and discussed at meetings of the Society.

In order to further secure and understand the breed, the Society also decided to DNA type as many Ancient White Parks as practical. To be registered, all animals must have DNA samples submitted and breeders are encouraged to sample animals that may not be registered (such as steers) in order to create a fuller genetic profile of the breed. Some breeders also use DNA typing to determine the sire in multiple sire breeding groups. The DNA typing has been done by Genserve Laboratories, formerly Bovacan, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. This lab was chosen because they have shown a commitment to the breed by revising their software to work with the extremely closely related Ancient White Parks. Another reason they were chosen is that they maintain a collection of physical DNA samples for all animals tested which allows for future testing with technologies that do not yet exist.

The Society has been very active in its efforts to conserve this genetic treasure. Activities of the Society have included a research program at the University of Saskatchewan to compare the genetics of the North American population to other populations, hosting a visit by Lawrence Alderson, the author of A Breed of Distinction and consultant to many rare breed conservation programs worldwide, and publishing a herd book in 2003. All of these activities have contributed to the success and growth of the breed.

The Breed

Ancient White Park cattle are readily identified by their classic style. The coat color is white with black or occasionally red points (ears, muzzle and feet). The white color is dominant but there is a recessive gene for non-white animals in the population that results in a few black animals. The cows tend to be tall, angular and very feminine at maturity with upsweeping horns that acquire a lyre shaped twist with age. The bulls have massive, masculine shoulders and horns that usually curve forward in a flat arc. Cows will reach a mature body weight of 1200 –1300 pounds at 4 to 5 years of age. Bulls will weigh in the neighborhood of 1600 pounds at 3 years of age and reach a weight of 1800 – 2000 pounds at age 5. White Park cattle tend to grow to full mature size more slowly than the more modern breeds. Their most remarkable traits are high fertility, easy calving, extreme adaptability, hardiness, and aggressive grazing behavior.

Over the past 20 years, the Ancient White Park has had its share of ups and down, but current population numbers suggest the breed is growing. The Society is currently considering creating a website and posting a new herd book online. Continued cooperation between breeders and efforts of the Society will ensure this breed is around for future generations.

For more information about Ancient White Park Cattle, contact the Ancient White Park Cattle Society of North America, Wes Henthorne, Secretary/Treasurer, 1273 Otter Creek Road, Big Timber, MT 59011, (406) 932-4197, weshenbt@mcn.net

Wes Henthorne was raised on the east slopes of the Rocky Mountains in an agricultural family. He and his family have lived north of Big Timber and managed the B Bar Ranch since 1983. Wes feels lucky to be involved with such photogenic cattle that allow his hobby and career to intersect often.

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