Characterizing Breeds of Beef Cattle

British Breeds

When talking about characterizing breeds of beef cattle we compare British Breeds that are breeds that were developed in the British Isles and were brought to the United States in the late 1700’s through the late 1800’s. Angus (Black and Red), Hereford (Horned and Polled), and Shorthorn are the primary British breeds. When compared to Continental European breeds, British breeds are generally smaller in mature size, reach mature size at an earlier age, have less growth potential, excel in fertility and calving ease, attain higher quality grades, and yield carcasses with a lower percentage of salable product.

Continental European Breeds

Continental European breeds are also commonly referred to as “exotic” breeds and include Charolais, Chianina, Gelbvieh, Limousin, Maine Anjou, Salers, and Simmental. The majority of these breeds are relatively new to the U.S., being imported in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s primarily to improve the growth rate and leanness of existing breeds. In comparison to British breeds, Continental European breeds are generally larger in mature size, later maturing (reach mature size at an older age), produce carcasses with less fat and a higher percentage of salable product, have lower quality grades, and produce more calving difficulty when mated to cows of the British breeds.

In the past 25 years, considerable research has been conducted to characterize and compare the major beef breeds in the U.S. The most comprehensive studies have been conducted at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, NE. Since 1970, over 30 breeds have been evaluated in a common environment and management system for various performance traits.

The data presented in the following tables summarize the results for sire breeds common to Virginia. Data on the breeds represented in this publication were collected from 1970 to 1990. Sires of the various breeds were mated to Angus, Hereford, or crossbred cows. Therefore, the data shown are for crossbred progeny sired by the various breeds and out of Angus, Hereford, or crossbred dams. Hereford-Angus cross calves were produced throughout the duration of the study and served as the control.

Original Hereford-Angus data represent performance of progeny from Hereford (Horned and Polled) and Angus bulls born before 1970; current Hereford-Angus data are for bulls of these breeds born from 1982 to 1984. The situation is similar for Original and Current Charolais.

Growth Traits:

Breed group means for birth and weaning weight, as well as feedlot average daily gain and final (slaughter) weights are shown in Table 1. Birth and weaning data are from both steers and heifers, whereas average daily gain and final weight are averages of only steer progeny. Final weights are adjusted to a common age at slaughter.

Significant differences among breeds for the various traits are evident. Breeds that sire calves that are heavy at birth also tend to be the heaviest at weaning, grow the fastest in the feedlot, and have the heaviest final weights (Charolais). The high-growth breeds with heavier birth weights also tended to cause more calving difficulty resulting in a lower percentage of unassisted births.

Research studies confirm that heavy birth weights are the primary cause of calving difficulty. Calf survival to weaning tended to be higher in breeds that required less assistance at birth (Hereford-Angus, Shorthorn, Salers).

Table 1. Sire Breed Group Averages for Birth, Weaning and Feedlot Performance Traits(1)

Breed Group

% Unassisted Births

% Survival to Weaning

Birth Wt., lb.

200 day Wn. Wt., lb.

Average Daily Gain, lb.

Final Weight, lb.

Orig. Hereford Angus

94.8

95.7

75.2

432

2.51

1068

Curr. Hereford-Angus

92.7

91.5

80.4

458

2.74

1152

Orig. Charolais

83.5

85.8

86.4

461

2.77

1160

Curr. Chianina

86.8

89.5

86.5

479

2.49

1219

Chianina

88.4

89.3

86.9

459

2.63

1124

Gelbvieh

94.1

91.0

83.9

456

2.66

1129

Limousin

91.8

90.8

80.6

433

2.49

1080

Maine Anjou

79.4

88.9

88.0

456

2.72

1147

Salers

95.2

91.7

80.9

464

2.70

1148

Shorthorn

97.6

91.9

82.4

460

2.73

1156

Simmental

89.2

88.8

84.9

458

2.73

1148


(1)Adapted from Cundiff et al., 1993

Carcass Traits:

Means for steer progeny carcass data are presented in Table 2. Carcass weights are highly related to final weights presented in Table 1. This table demonstrates that breeds which excel in retail product yield (percentage of the carcass weight that is trimmed, saleable red meat) also have lower marbling scores and reduced percentage of USDA Choice quality grades (Chianina, Limousin).

Marbling score is a measurement of the amount of intramuscular fat in the ribeye muscle and is an indicator of eating quality. High marbling breeds generally are lower in retail product yield. Fat thickness of the carcass has the largest impact on retail product yield. As fat thickness increases, a lower percentage of the carcass is saleable retail product due to trimming loss.

Consequently, lean breeds with minimal carcass fat thickness excel in retail product yield. Ribeye area is an indicator of total muscle mass in the carcass and has a positive influence on retail product yield. These breed differences verify the importance of using a combination of British and Continental genetics that complement each other in a breeding program to produce an end product that has both acceptable carcass quality and retail product yield.

Table 2. Sire Breed Group Averages for Carcass Traits(1)

Breed Group

Carcass Weight lb.

Fat Thickness, in.

Ribeye Area, sq. in.

Retail Product Yield %

Marbling Score (2)

% USDA Choice

Orig. Hereford Angus

654

.62

10.9

67.1

551

74.5

Curr. Hereford-Angus

707

.63

11.2

67.2

543

70.7

Orig. Charolais

710

.37

12.4

71.1

528

64.7

Curr. Chianina

747

.36

12.6

70.2

523

58.9

Chianina

692

.32

12.4

71.9

448

27.5

Gelbvieh

6863

.39

12.0

70.2

507

45.2

Limousin

667

.39

12.3

71.5

477

43.8

Maine Anjou

705

.38

12.3

70.1

501

49.5

Salers

707

.41

12.0

70.0

515

44.5

Shorthorn

707

.49

11.1

67.0

566

74.4

Simmental

695

.37

11.9

70.1

510

63.4


(1)Adapted from Cundiff et al., 1993

(2)400- Slight degree of marbling = Select Quality Grade, 500 = Small degree of marbling = Choice- Quality Grade

Yearling Heifer Traits:

Yearling heifer data for growth and reproductive traits are shown in Table 3. Heifers sired by breeds that were heaviest at 400 days of age tended to be the oldest at puberty. Conversely, heifers sired by breeds with smaller mature size tended to reach puberty at a younger age (Hereford-Angus).

However, some large breeds that have been selected for milk production (Gelbvieh, Sim mental, Salers) reach puberty at a relatively young age. Pregnancy rate in heifers was not consistently related to age at puberty or body weight at 400 days of age because most animals in these studies were managed to grow at rates that allowed them to express puberty well before the start of their first breeding season. Different results could occur in less intensively managed animals.

Table 3. Sire Breed Group Averages for Yearling Heifer Traits(1)

Breed Group

400-day Weight, lb.

Puberty Expressed, %

Age at Puberty, days

Pregnancy Rate, %

Orig. Hereford Angus

706

92.2

365

87.9

Curr. Hereford-Angus

747

97.3

366

80.1

Orig. Charolais

744

87.0

393

81.0

Curr. Chianina

734

83.8

400

84.0

Chianina

725

87.1

341

87.4

Gelbvieh

717

88.0

391

83.7

Limousin

717

88.0

391

83.7

Maine Anjou

753

90.6

370

92.8

Salers

763

101.0

365

89.0

Shorthorn

769

95.8

359

89.0

Simmental

749

94.4

360

86.4

Cow Production Traits:

The reproductive and maternal trait means of cows sired by the breeds of primary interest in Virginia are presented in Table 4. Cows were mated to similar bulls, and performance information was recorded on the calves to measure the maternal characteristics of the crossbred cows. Cows sired by bulls with large mature size gave birth to heavier calves.

However, these heavier calves at birth did not result in an increase in calving difficulty measured in percentage of calves born unassisted. This is different from the results shown in Table 1, where calves that were heavy at birth required more assistance at calving.

For Table 4, maternal calving ease is the trait of interest, i.e. how the daughters of a particular breed of sire calve as cows. Table 4 suggests that cows that have increased mature size are able to give birth to heavier calves without increases in calving difficulty.

The 200-day weaning weights are reflective of both the milking ability of the cow and the growth potential of the calf. Cows with high milk production and growth (Gelbvieh) had higher calf weaning weights than cows with low milk production (Limousin).

Conception rates, calving difficulty, and calf livability also contribute to calf weaning weights when calf weaning weights are expressed on a per cow exposed basis. Breeds that sire cows that excel in this combination of traits will have heavier weaning weights per cow exposed (Gelbvieh, Shorthorn).

Table 4. Breed Group Averages for Production Traits of Crossbred Cows(1)

Breed Group

Calves Born Alive, %

Calves Weaned, %

Calves Born Unassisted, %

Calf Birth Wt., lb.

Calf 200-day Wt.: Per Calf Weaned, lb.

Calf 200-day Wt.: Per Cow Exposed lb.

Orig. Hereford Angus

91

84

87

86

475

401

Curr. Hereford-Angus

88

79

87

88

504

399

Orig. Charolais

88

80

85

93

503

403

Curr. Chianina

89

80

91

91

507

404

Chianina

93

86

92

95

523

454

Gelbvieh

95

87

89

90

533

464

Limousin

89

82

88

88

484

397

Maine Anjou

94

86

89

96

522

449

Salers

92

86

92

90

527

453

Shorthorn

93

87

90

94

529

460

Simmental

89

83

83

91

521

433


(1)Adapted from Cundiff et al., 1993

General Characterization of Breeds:

Table 5 characterizes the breeds for relative differences in growth rate/mature size, lean to fat ratio (retail product yield), age at puberty, and milk production. Generally, the Hereford-Angus and Shorthorn crossbreds are moderate in growth and mature size, relatively low in lean to fat ratio, reach puberty at a young age, and are moderate in milk production.

In comparison, calves sired by Gelbvieh, Maine Anjou, Salers, and Simmental bulls were moderate to high in growth rate and mature size, high in lean to fat ratio, moderate in age at puberty, and moderate to high in milk production. The Charolais, Chianina, and Limousin breed types tended to be high in growth rate/mature size, high in lean to fat ratio, older at puberty, and low in milk production.

Table 5. Characterizaion of Sire Breeds for Four Production Traits(1)

Breed Group

Growth Rate and Mature Size

Lean to Fat Ratio

Age at Puberty

Milk Production

Orig. Hereford Angus

XXX

XX

XXX

XX

Charolais

XXXXX

XXXXX

XXXX

X

Chianina

XXXXX

XXXXX

XXXX

X

Gelbvieh

XXXX

XXXX

XX

XXXX

Limousin

XXX

XXXXX

XXXX

X

Maine Anjou

XXXXX

XXXX

XXX

XXX

Salers

XXXXX

XXXX

XXX

XXX

Shorthorn

XXX

XX

XXX

XXX

Simmental

XXXXX

XXXX

XXX

XXXX


(1)Adapted from Cundiff et al., 1993

X=lowest, XXXXXX=highest

Ref: Virginia Cooperative Extention – Public and Educational Resources