Story: Beef farming
Page 3 – Main beef cattle breeds
The Shorthorn (originally called a Durham) originated in north-east England. Its name distinguishes it from other British cattle breeds with long and medium horns, or polled cattle – cattle with no horns.
When Shorthorns were first brought to New Zealand, they were used for dairy and meat production, and as draught animals. During the 19th century, breeders in New Zealand and elsewhere developed two types: the milking or dairy Shorthorn and the beef Shorthorn.
In the early days cattle could be difficult to handle. At Te Waimate Station, in South Canterbury, the cattle yards were built with narrow gaps through which a man could escape from a charging beast. The owner recalled how ‘one day Old Jim, the stockman, was too slow, and an infuriated cow tossed him right over the seven-foot rails, then charged round the yard, bellowing, portions of Jim’s nether garments dangling from her horns’. 1
The modern Shorthorn is a medium-sized animal with a red, roan or white coat. Shorthorns are docile and easy to handle. The cows have few problems calving, and are good mothers, so the calves reach good weights by weaning time. Well-finished Shorthorn carcasses are lean; the meat is marbled with fat, and has a good flavour.
Despite their early popularity, by the early 2000s there were few commercial Shorthorn herds in New Zealand. Most of the 300 Shorthorn bulls that are sold annually by stud breeders are mated with other breeds.
The Aberdeen Angus, now usually known as the Angus, originated in north-eastern Scotland. It is black and has no horns.
Angus cattle were first imported into New Zealand in 1863, when the Australia and New Zealand Land Company introduced a bull and three cows to their station in Southland. In the 1880s they set up the first Angus stud in New Zealand, at Totara Estate in North Otago.
Theory vs practice
Some farm workers had novel ideas about how to deal with difficult cattle. ‘A new chum who was working on [Te Waimate] Station had a theory that a beast would not charge if one turned one’s back on it, and then stooped down and looked at it through one’s legs. But a well-known poley [hornless] bullock disproved his theory, and hit him right on the soft end – luckily, however, without serious injury.’ 2
The Scottish Angus was a small, stocky beast, noted for its hardiness and its ability to thrive on poor pasture. From the 1960s, New Zealand breeders bred it to produce a taller, longer and larger animal.
The modern Angus is moderately large and well-muscled. It is hardy and can thrive in hard hill country. The cows are highly fertile and good mothers. Angus meat is lean and well-marbled, with excellent flavour.
Angus cattle have been the most popular breed in New Zealand for many years, and comprised 21% of the national beef herd in 2006. The bulls are widely used in cross-breeding, and Angus or Angus-cross cattle account for about 33% of all beef breeding cows.
On stations where there was a lot of bush, cattle became cunning and hid from musterers. They lived in the forest, coming out to feed on the nearby pastures. Some went for years without being brought in, and large mobs grew up in some places. Unmarked wild cattle – which had never seen yards or received a station earmark or brand – were known as cleanskins.
Hereford cattle, bred in Herefordshire, have distinctive red-and-white body markings and a white face.
In 1868, R. and E. McLean imported Herefords to their Auckland farm. The Holm family founded New Zealand’s first Hereford stud at Waimahaka, Southland, in 1877.
Since the 1950s, Herefords have been second to the Angus in popularity in New Zealand. In 2006, pure Hereford cattle made up 9% of the national beef herd, and Angus–Hereford crosses another 9%. Herefords are also crossed with other breeds.
The Hereford is hardy and can be run in a wide range of environmental conditions. The cows are highly fertile and calve easily. Herefords convert feed to meat efficiently, and produce a high-quality carcass. The traditional Hereford is horned, but a polled type was bred in the US and imported into New Zealand in 1929.
Other British breeds
Other British beef breeds have been imported, but have had little influence on beef farming. Many are bred for interest value only. They include:
- Galloway and Belted Galloway
- Red Poll
- South Devon
- Welsh Black.