"...when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another Heaven and another Earth must pass before such a one can be again."
-William Beebe

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Large and imposing, cattle have adapted to an incredible range of natural environments and human societies, providing people with milk, meat, leather, and draft power. In many cultures, cattle have spiritual, economic or political importance far beyond the monetary value of the animals themselves. As a response to these many uses and habitats of cattle, a wide array of breeds have been developed.

Spanish explorers first brought cattle to the Americas beginning in the early 1500s. These cattle were hardy and rugged, and the adapted readily to the new environments. They make up a breed family called criollo cattle; the term criollo means "of European origin but born in the New World." North American criollo breeds include the Corriente, Florida Cracker, Pineywoods, and Texas Longhorn.

Cattle from England and Northern Europe were imported to North America beginning in the early 1600s.

[The imported European breeds] served a variety of subsistence niches in America for over 200 years. A more deliberate introduction of cattle breeds began around 1800. Several improved cattle breeds were imported from Scotland, England, France, and the Netherlands. The Shorthorn [from England] (also known as the Durham) was by far the most valuable. People needed multipurpose cattle, and the Shorthorn combined excellent dairy and beef qualities as well as the size and strength necessary for use as oxen. It soon became the most popular breed in America.

By 1900 the market had shifted to favor the use of specialized beef and dairy breeds. The Hereford and Angus came to dominate the beef industry, while the Ayrshire, Jersey, and Guernsey were the most numerous of the diary breeds.

Imports since 1900 have further increased the diversity of cattle breeds in the United States. The large number of beef cattle breeds - and the genetic diversity they represent - has been a cornerstone of success for the beef industry, allowing producers to respond to changing market demands. Yet diversity has been conserved unintentionally because of the broad range of habitats in which beef cattle are raised, the accessibility of markets, and decentralized approaches to selection. It is because of this informal conservation process that farmers and breeders have access to the diversity they needed for new production and market niches.

The dairy industry presents a sharp contrast, as it rests almost entirely on the use of a single breed, the Holstein. The Holstein is known for is adaptation to confinement dairying, and the cows produce more milk under such conditions than do those of any other breed. As a result, it has prospered at the expense of all other breeds in the past fifty years. The success of the Holstein, however, rests on the availability of high levels of inputs, including large amounts of grain and veterinary support.

The resurgence of lower cost, grass-based dairying as a production niche is causing dairy farmers to rethink the industry's reliance on the Holstein. Grass-based production requires cows that are active grazers, able to maintain body condition, produce milk, and reproduce efficiently on a forage diet. Farmers looking for these qualities have turned to the Ayrshire, Brown Swiss, Jersey, and other "colored" dairy breeds.

The pressures of economic consolidation and vertical integration, significant in the swine and poultry industries, have had less obvious impact on cattle. Nonetheless, there is increasing consolidation among the companies that buy milk and beef from farmers. This process is gradually having two negative effects: the overall lowering of prices paid and the further discounting of animals which do not conform to a standard industrial type. The cattle industry, built upon a foundation of genetic diversity, cannot afford to let short term market pressures eliminate rare breeds and thus the diversity essential to its future success.

Excepted from A Rare Breeds Album of American Livestock, pg 13-14.