October 29, 2008

Shorthorn Cattle - A History of the Breed

By Dr Clive Dalton

The Shorthorn was a mainstay of British farming for hundreds of years and far outnumbered all other types. Its origins are obscure, although there were large red and white cattle with short horns (as opposed to Longhorn cattle) called Teeswaters in England in the early 18th Century near Darlington in county Durham. They probably had a lot of Dutch blood in them.

Charles Colling (1750-1836) and his brother Robert (1749-1820) of Barmpton Hall (see photo at right) used the principles of “in-and-in breeding”, and “breeding the best to the best” developed by the famous breeding pioneer of the time - Thomas Bakewell of Dishley. Bakewell was the noted “improver” of Longhorn cattle and Leicester sheep and his breeding principles were taken up, and in time were applied to all farm stock.

Thomas Bates (1776-1849) continued the work along with the Booth family (father, sons and grandsons) working from 1790-1878). The degree to which inbreeding was used can be seen from the pedigree of the famous bull “Belvedere, bred by Bates whose son (Favourite 252) had 53/64th of Belvedere’s blood, with one more 64th from Favourite’s mother.

Picture: Killerby Grange, Yorkshire. Home of the Booth Brothers

In the mid 1800s, breeders responded to a demand for beef from abroad which started to threaten emphasis on milk. But pioneering work was done in Scotland by Amos Cruikshank of Sittydon (1808-1895) who selected for milk production in his cattle and also bred them for the butcher. Later George Taylor of Cranford and Lord Rothschild of Tring built up Shorthorn dairy herds where carcass value was also improved. So these breeders were valiantly trying to select for both meat and milk traits in the same animals.

This made sense - to breed fast growing males and good milking females, and when the females had finished milking, they fattened quickly for beef. Unfortunately the result was the wrong combination – i.e. steers that wouldn’t fatten and heifers that wouldn’t milk, hence the criticism that “dual-purpose” was really “no-purpose”!

What really killed the Shorthorn in UK was the clear drive for more milk after the war and was the trigger for specialist dairy breeds like the Dutch Friesian (which became the British Friesian) to take over.

The Shorthorn survived, but only after being split into two separate breeds – the Beef Shorthorn and the Dairy Shorthorn, although they were still both registered in the same (Coates’s) herd book. Then a very productive dairy strain of Shorthorn developed in the Yorkshire and Durham Dales and in Cumberland where it was referred to and registered as the Northern Dairy Shorthorn (NDS). It was very popular and the Cumberland Farm Institute at Newton Rigg had a top herd.

The Lincoln Red Shorthorn evolved in East Anglia where a dual-purpose cow was ideal to turn arable farming byproducts into beef and milk. Up to 1935 they were recorded in their own herd book. They are a rich red colour (referred to as Lincoln Reds ) and today are classed as a "Rare Bred".

The Beef Shorthorn was always popular in Scotland and you would hear farmers refer to their “Scotch Shorthorn” and their noted “Scotch beef”. These cattle were regular prizewinners at the annual Smithfield Show in London.

But the most amazing thing about the Beef Shorthorn is the way it spread around the world and made massive contributions to beef production in North and South America, Africa and Australia where extremes from shimmering heat to below-zero cold were so very different from it’s native heath. The breed can still be found in these areas, and it may yet make a comeback with renewed interest in cattle that can perform on pasture, as world grain prices rise.

Beef Shorthorn genes have made a major contribution to other breeds such as the Luing in Scotland, Santa Gertrudis in the USA and the Queensland Red in Australia. In North America, Bates’s Shorthorns were probably some of the first to be imported, and in his book he refers to cattle being sold to the Ohio Agricultural Society about 1830. He even contemplated moving to America, and the book refers to “repeated statements of Bates that the Americans know the properties and value of improved Shorthorns better than in his own country”.

Bates observed that “in the United States and Canada short-horn cattle are not the fancy and hobby of a few gentlemen or noblemen of large fortune. They are the investments of highly educated and experienced and sensible men of business and commerce. He also found Americans free of the narrow prejudices and interested motives he encountered at home”. It seemed that he really liked the place, the people and the cattle!

In Canada the Beef Shorthorn (probably of Cruickshank origin) replaced the Texas Longhorn at the end of the 19th Century and the larger ranches used Shorthorns extensively right up to the 1930s when the Hereford took over.

In Australia, breeders in the Illiwarra area south of Sydney in New South Wales produced a smooth coated Dairy Shorthorn, mainly dark red in colour (like the Lincoln Red) with impressive performance in warm coastal conditions.

White Beef Shorthorn bulls were used widely in Britain to cross on to Galloway cows to produce what many considered the “Rolls Royce” of commercial beef cows – the “Blue-Grey”. We certainly make this claim in Northumberland where so many of them were bred and bought by beef farmers all over England for breeding cows. The Blue-Grey colour comes from their combined black and white hairs giving the impression of blue from a distance. They were mated to Aberdeen Angus bulls and all the offspring went for prime beef.

Breeders in Cumberland and the Hexham area of Northumberland were noted for producing these white Shorthorn bulls, and they were sometimes referred to as the “Cumberland” or “Hexham White Shorthorn”. Hexham was certainly an important market where they were sold.

Generations of us agricultural students had to suffer memorising Mendel’s coloured peas in basic genetics, and peas were definitely not our thing. But the inheritance of Shorthorn coat colour was more in our line of business, as in the 1950s the breed was still very popular. Here’s the outcome of crossing the different colours. The capital letter is used for the dominant allele and the small case letter for the recessive allele. The two alleles make up the “gene” for colour.
  • Red bull (RR) x Red cow (RR) = all homozygous red offspring (RR) -(red allele is dominant)
  • White bull (rr) x White cow (rr) = all homozygous white offspring (rr) -(white allele is recessive)
  • Red bull (RR) x White cow (rr) = all heterozygous roan (Rr)
  • White bull (rr) x Red cow (RR) – all heterozygous roan (Rr)
  • Roan bull (Rr) x Roan cow (Rr) = 1 homozygous red (RR): 2 heterozygous roan (Rr): 1 homozygous white (rr). The phenotypic ratio (1:2:1) or what they look like is the same as the genetic ratio (what their genetic makeup is).

Further reading:
Sanders, E. (1951). A Beast Book for the pocket. The Vertebrates of Britain Wild and Domestic other than Birds and Fishes. (See chapter on cattle), Oxford University Press.

Dalton, D.C. (1980). An introduction to practical animal breeding.
Granada. ISBN 0-246-11194-1


  1. I'm in kentucky what two breads make up the shorthorn cattle .I just purchased a calf and would like to know if you wouldn't mind?

  2. As far as I can remember about the history, there was no two breeds that made up the Shorthorn. Those old English breeds evolved from local cattle that went back into Celtic times - and developed separately in different areas of Britain.

    The Celtic cattle were mainly black but with all the invasions of those early days, the genes for the broken colours of the Shorthorn could probably have come from the Continent.

    Hopefully some reader may have some more specific information