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Milking Shorthorn - Native Cattle

The Shorthorn is likely the most famous and ­influential breed of cattle in the history of agriculture. It was among the first livestock breeds to be improved, during the 1700s, and had one of the first herdbooks established, in 1822. Since the early 1800s and until recently, Shorthorns were the most popular cattle in Britain, and they were exported around the world. The story of the Shorthorn has been recorded in countless publications, and images of red, white, and roan Shorthorns dominate sporting art. Yet the breed is now in decline, and its rise and fall is reflective of great changes in agriculture over the past two ­centuries.

The Shorthorn was historically called the Durham because it originated in the county of Durham. Imported Dutch cattle were crossed with native stocks and selected for performance in both meat and milk production. The breed became known early in the 1800s, especially through a traveling promotional ­exhibit of the famous “Durham Ox.” The Ox, calved in 1796, weighed over 3,500 pounds at ten years old and brought much acclaim to the breed. Shorthorns were first imported to America in the late 1700s, with the largest number of cattle brought in after 1820. The breed was initially concentrated in Ohio and Kentucky, a region rich in grass and corn to feed cattle, but by the end of the1800s it was spread throughout America. The Shorthorn was valued for its dairy and beef ­qualities and also used as a draft animal.

Dual­purpose selection has been the major theme of the breed's history. Breeders have always differed in their view of the Shorthorn’s purpose, with some selecting for maximum dairy production, others favoring beef, and still others selecting for a balance of the two. At different times, one type of selection would outweigh the other, and then the tide would swing back. For example, the Shorthorn first gained value in the United States as the premiere dairy breed of the mid­1800s, though by 1900 the beef type “Scotch Shorthorns” were the most desirable.

Early in the 1900s, the breed was formally split into a beef type, called Beef Shorthorn or simply Shorthorn, and a dairy type called Milking Shorthorn. Most breeders favored ­selection for beef, and this trend has continued, especially with the rise of the Holstein as the dominant dairy breed. The Milking Shorthorn, despite its many fine qualities and history of dairy selection, could not compete with the quantity of milk produced by the Holstein, and the breed lost ­favor.

Another factor in the decline of the Milking Shorthorn has occurred more recently. In an effort to increase milk production, the breed’s herdbook has been opened to substantial introduction of outside blood, first from Illawara (Australian Shorthorn) and then Red and White Holstein. Today, many of the bulls registered as Milking Shorthorn are actually one­half or more ­Holstein. While these introductions did increase production, they also reduced the breed’s genetic uniqueness. The breed became less distinct from the Holstein and therefore less ­useful for commercial crossing. It also lost consistency of performance in its historic traits, such as the ability to produce on grass. This is a major ­obstacle in its promotion for low­input dairying.

The Milking Shorthorn is medium to large in size, with cows weighing 1,200–1,400 pounds and bulls about one ton. Milking Shorthorns are red, white, roan, or a mixture of the three, sometimes with extensive speckling. Most cattle are horned.

Although there are several thousand Milking Shorthorns (called Dairy Shorthorns) found in Britain, the breed is declining globally and in North America. Pure American strains are the conservation priority in the United States. These strains will perform well for grass­based dairying, as they are forage­efficient, healthy, long­lived, and productive, with the additional value of high quality beef.

Status: See CPL

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