The Shorthorn is likely the most famous and influential breed of cattle in the history of agriculture worldwide. It was among the first livestock breeds to be improved, beginning in 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 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 reflect the major changes in agriculture over the past two centuries.
The Shorthorn was historically called the Durham because it originated in the county of Durham in northern England. 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 the 1800s, it spread throughout America. The Shorthorn was valued for its dairy and beef qualities, and also used as a draft animal.
Dual-purpose 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 or beef production, while some still 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 mid-1800s, 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 – Native – now known as the Heritage 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 Heritage Shorthorn (Native), 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.
The Heritage Shorthorn is medium to large in size, with cows weighing 1,200 to 1,400 pounds and bulls about one ton. Heritage Shorthorns are red, white, roan, or a mixture of the three, sometimes with extensive speckling. Most cattle are horned.
Although there are several thousand Heritage Shorthorns (called Dairy Shorthorns) found in Britain, the breed is declining globally. Pure American strains are the conservation priority in the U.S. These strains will perform well for grass-based dairying, as they are forage efficient, healthy, long-lived, and productive, with the added value of high-quality beef.
Did you know:
The Livestock Conservancy is America’s leading organization working to save over 150 heritage breeds from extinction. We rely on the support of our members, grants, and donations from the public to raise the $700,000 a year needed to maintain our conservation work with rare breeds of farm animals. Click here to learn how you can help.