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Which cattle-breed is best?

written by

Joel Salatin

posted on

December 12, 2023

Many people wonder what kind of cattle breeds we use for our beef. A quick answer is “anything but black.” That’s not totally true, but it does speak to our goal. No single breed carries all the desirable and perfect characteristics.

If only one breed were the answer, how could we have diversity? The numerous breeds around the world often carry geographic identifiers because certain characteristics allow health and vigor in certain environments. Scottish Highlander cattle, for example, do great in the Scottish Highlands, but they’re insufferably hot and stressed in Alabama.

Breeds generally grew out of geographical and climatic adaptation. At Polyface, we are far more interested in phenotypes and adaptation to our region than we are about color and breed distinctives. In general, we want wide bodied animals, short-legged, stocky, and small-framed. That is exactly the opposite of what the industry wants because what drives genetics in the cattle industry is fabrication efficiency. If you’re going to cut rib-eye steaks, getting an extra two per carcass is more efficient from a throughput standpoint.

The large size and heavy frames of modern cattle are ideal for corn feeding, staying above manure in a feedlot, and efficient processing. These are the opposite characteristics that we want in a grass-finished animal. More difference exists within breeds than from breed to breed. In other words, within Herefords are both large and small frames. Within Shorthorns are both large and small frames. Within any breed, some are more efficient converters of forage into meat, or heat tolerance in the summer, easy calving, and docility.

The single most important trait we look for at Polyface is longevity. The ones who last the longest are the ones most adapted, least stressed, and most economical in our system, in our climate, in our area. The animal that wins for us may not look like the animal that wins in Zimbabwe. But different regions demand different adaptations. In the end, we don’t care much about color; we care about health. Performance beats pedigree every time.

When you look at our cattle in the field, you’ll see red ones, grey ones, brown ones, and an occasional black one—goodness, it looks like Heinz 57 out there. But the goal is homogeneity of performance, not color or size or muzzle whiskers. We’re looking for a slick, well-fleshed, easy-keeping animal with a gentle disposition and enough brains to select the best grasses for her health. That beef, in turn, will give us the best eating and nutritional experience. Enjoy.

Joel Salatin

Polyface Farm

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