Galloway Cattle: Heritage Livestock Breeds

Lean beef producers on a simpler free-range diet.

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by Adobestock/denboma

Galloway cattle are a heritage livestock breed known to produce high-quality meat on a diet of free-range pasture alone, making it a good breed for a homesteader looking to be completely self-sufficient and who wants to produce the healthiest, leanest meat without sacrificing an ounce of flavor.

The land known as Galloway lies north and east over the border of the Cheviot Hills, dividing England from Scotland. Once covered in dense oak forests, today the land is varied with green glens, moors, and high hills. Three breeds were once most numerous in Scotland: the Ayrshire, the horned Highland or Kyloe, and the polled Galloway. Of the three, the Galloway was the most popular. The Galloway shares a mutual ancestor with the polled Angus, which would later become important worldwide. Many sixteenth-century writers remarked on the large numbers and excellent quality of the “black cattle” of Galloway. Although the cattle were called “black,” they were also dun, red, brindled, linebacked, or marked with white.

Historical Galloway Cattle

Galloway cattle were raised mainly for beef, especially in the hills, where the cattle grazed all winter. On the green lowlands, the calves shared their mothers’ rich milk with the dairymaids. The cattle were generally grazed until the age of three, when they were ready to be driven south to England. After walking the long distance to Norfolk, the cattle were fattened and then sold on the London market. Galloway beef was renowned for its fine marbling, which makes the beef tender and juicy. Like the Highland, it lacked an excessive layer of fat under the skin.

The Scottish cattle-driving trade flourished for about one hundred years. After the cattle trade ended in the 1840s, Galloways were kept mainly in the hills. Their survival was insured by the success of crossbreeding Galloway cows with Whitebred Shorthorn bulls, which contributed a more rapid maturity. Combined with the excellent beef qualities, longevity, and hardiness of the Galloway, the resultant crossbred cows produced calves economically in the borderlands. This crossbred was known as the Blue-Grey, and it remains popular today in Scotland and England.

The medium-sized Galloway resembles the Highland somewhat in the face, ears, and coat but also the Angus in compactness and shortness of leg. The breed has always been polled, and any appearance of horns was seen as proof of crossbreeding. The coat has long been the Galloway’s distinguishing feature, and the breed is said to have more hairs per square inch than any other domestic cattle breed. The long, shaggy overcoat fringes the face and ears and covers the tail. The dense, soft undercoat is described as mossy and has a texture similar to sealskin. This double coat keeps the Galloway warm and dry in wet and cold weather. The outer coat is shed out in hot summers. The Galloway’s furry hide has been used for coats or blankets.

Establishment of Breed Characteristics

Scottish farmers traditionally believed that black colored Galloways were especially hardy through the winter, and the other traditional colors grew rarer. By the 1880s, the belted Galloway was less common than in the early years of the century, and the brindle and linebacked Galloways disappeared.

The original pedigrees and records of the breed were lost in a fire in Edinburgh in 1851. Ten years later a herd book for the polled Angus and Galloway breeds was published, and in 1878, a separate herd book for the Galloway Cattle Society was issued. Black was the favored color, although dun was accepted. All other colors were excluded.

In Britain and Scotland, the Galloway was used for the production of the Blue-Grey and on hill grazings. Although it was well known, the Galloway never achieved strength in numbers. In the twentieth century, it was difficult to raise the Galloway profitably on marginal land without a significant government subsidy. Breeding of the Blue-Grey for suckler herds has been the primary use of the breed through the present.

Galloways Come to North America

Galloways were first imported to North America in 1853 to Ontario, Canada. Four years later, 40 Galloway were exhibited at a local fair, where they were described as “full, round and hearty; [with] thick and wavy long hair; and calm.” They were mostly black, although there were one or two dull reds or duns, and one brindle.

In 1866, Michigan State College purchased a group of the Canadian cattle. For a time, the two Scottish breeds, the Angus and the Galloway, were confused by many agricultural writers as a single polled, black breed. The advantages of polled cattle were quickly acknowledged, however. Promoters claimed that although horns had once been important for defense on the range, horned cattle also injured each other when closely confined. The prediction was made that polled cattle would become permanently established in the United States.

More Galloways were imported from Scotland in the 1880s. By 1882, a united North American registry was formed, and a herd book was published the next year. Twenty years later, breeders in the United States separated into their own registry and were registering about 2,000 calves yearly. These figures were comparable with the two other major beef breeds. In 1902, black Galloway coats were advertised for sale in the Sears catalogue and hides were made into rugs.

Decline and Revival

Galloways were found first on Midwestern farms but were carried westward to the rangelands of the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming. This westward pattern was duplicated in Canada. Yet although the popularity of the Angus continued to boom, the Galloway’s fortunes ultimately did not fare so well. A portion of the blame can be laid on two cattle-dealing brothers in Missouri who imported more than 1,000 Galloway culls from Scotland and sold them as breeding stock. In addition, dissent in the breeder’s association and the formation of splinter groups led to a failure to promote the breed as successfully as the Angus. Other breeders concentrated only on cattle for the show ring, often following the fickle nature of fads.

The breed declined in Canada, too, and the breeder’s association became inactive in 1931. Records continued to be kept by the Canadian National Live Stock Records Committee until the Canadian Galloway Association was reactivated in 1957.

New stock, both black and dun, was imported to North America from Scotland in the 1950s, and the breed experienced a renewed popularity. By 1970, there were more than 3,000 registrations in the United States. In 1973, the American Galloway Breeders Association became the umbrella registry for Galloways, Belted Galloways, and White Galloways. Unfortunately, the Galloway again lost favor with cattle raisers, and registrations had fallen to about 100 by 1990. The story was similar in Canada, with 600 registrations in 1970. After a decline, current registrations have increased to more than 300. Galloways, Belted Galloways, and White Galloways are registered in separate sections.

Benefits of Galloway Cattle

Today’s North American Galloways again have strong feet and legs, hardiness, longevity, thriftiness, high-grading carcasses, and that magnificent coat, which serves as natural insulation against winter cold and summer insects. Black is still the prevalent color, while dun, red, and white cattle are rarer. The black coat can appear tipped with brown, but this is due to the effects of sun and weather. Ranchers have observed that Galloways are strongly maternal, cautious toward strange events, and protective of the herd when faced with a predator. Cows weigh 1,000 to 1,400 pounds, and bulls average about 1,800 pounds. The American Galloways Breeders Association allows upgrading to “certified” status but not “purebred.”

The Galloway calf is born small but matures quickly. The Galloway is also able to produce superior beef directly from grass. In crosses, the Galloway transmits a high level of hybrid vigor and polled calves. Numerous studies have proven that the Galloway and Galloway cross can be fed up to 30 percent less grain while producing a more profitable lean carcass. The meat tends to be well marbled but with a wide, fat rim, giving it both consumer appeal and tenderness. The Galloway can also produce excellent, dark, flavorful lean beef under natural conditions.

All Galloway breeders are facing the challenge of preserving their breed while resisting the demands of the show ring, which can place too much emphasis on visual appraisal without concern for functional traits. The commercial market is also placing pressure on breeders to conform to its current preferences.

In 1990, the American Galloway population was estimated at about 650, and there was increased interest in the breed. In Canada, 333 Galloways were registered in 1995, in addition to Belted Galloways and White Galloways. The number of breeders continues to increase. Galloways are generally found in Ontario, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.

The British and Scottish Galloway population is estimated at about 2,500. Although Galloways have been exported from the United Kingdom and Canada to many other countries, they are most numerous in Germany and Australia, followed by the nations of the former Soviet Union, New Zealand, and Chile. In Germany, the hardy Galloway can be left outdoors in the winter and produces well on federally subsidized, marginal land, which has led to its increased popularity. The German population was estimated at 4,000 in 1990.

Our thanks to Yale University Press for their kind permission to post this profile from The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds (Copyright 2001 by Yale University), by Janet Vorwald Dohner. This 500-page book is a definitive reference about heritage livestock, describing the history and characteristics of almost 200 breeds of poultry, cattle, pigs, goats, sheep and horses.