Shorthorn Cattle are a heritage livestock breed known for their milk production. These milking cows are known for their strength and self-reliance, commonly giving unassisted births and giving milk with higher protein content. Often called Durhams, Shorthorns were brought to the New World very early and valued for meat, milk, and draft. The first documented import occurred in 1783 to Virginia, where the cows were praised as remarkable milkers. Durham steers were especially valued as oxen. Shorthorns were frequently imported for the next fifty years, although the first import to Canada was not made until 1825.
In North America, a distinction was often made between English Shorthorns of Bates or Booth breeding and Scottish Shorthorns of Cruickshank bloodlines. In 1852, there was an important importation of Duchess line Bates cattle, known for their milking ability, followed by continued selections from the best of the English Shorthorns. Later in the nineteenth century, the emphasis was on the Cruickshank or Scotch Shorthorn, known for its heavy meat production.
Among the progressive Shorthorn breeders were the Shaker communities in Kentucky and Ohio who sought to improve the local cattle. In 1811, the Shakers purchased a valuable, purebred Shorthorn bull aptly renamed Shaker. Twenty years later, Henry Clay and the Shakers imported the bull Orizimbo for the staggering sum of one thousand dollars. The first American herd book was issued in 1846. Just ten years later, the Shakers at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, owned the largest registered herd of Shorthorns in the United States. These cows were milked and averaged 8 gallons daily. Butter and cheese were shipped by river to city markets. Beef calves were also raised for community use and for market.
The American Shorthorn Breeder’s Association was formed in 1882, registering and promoting both the meat and milk types, although the Scottish Shorthorns were coming into greater demand to increase meatiness. Solid red became the fashionable color, perhaps because roan or speckled cows resembled the much-maligned Texas Longhorn. The Peoples’ Farm and Stock Cyclopedia of 1885 decried this trend as “foolish,” especially castigating the breeders who castrated “animals that possessed every valuable point except the one of color.” Unfortunately, many of the dairy-type Shorthorns were not solid red in color.
The impact of the Shorthorn was unquestionably large upon the general stock of the country. Shorthorns of both types enjoyed great popularity until the late 1800s, when the Aberdeen Angus and Hereford began to challenge their dominance.
As beef production became more important, owners and breeders of the dairy type grew concerned about maintaining the good milking qualities of the Shorthorn. In 1912, they began to work within the Shorthorn association to keep official milk records and promote improvements. Eventually, as their goals for the breed changed, the factions found it harder to work together. In 1948, the breed organization was split, and the American Milking Shorthorn Society began to register and promote the Milking Shorthorn. Twenty years later, the Milking Shorthorn was declared a dairy breed, and it soon joined the Purebred Dairy Cattle Association.
Since the mid-twentieth century, the breed has become more dairy and angular in character and conformation. These changes have been made in part by the inclusion of outside genetics and upgrading. Besides a widely used Norwegian Red bull, there were many imports of the New Zealand Milking Shorthorn and an Australian Dairy Shorthorn breed called the Illawarra. The official genetic expansion program allows upgrading and crosses with red-and-white Holsteins, black Holsteins, or any recognized dairy breed. Milking Shorthorn breeders regularly exchange genetics across the Canadian-American border.
Milking Shorthorns are still red, red and white, white, roan, or speckled. Black is not allowed. The breed can be horned or polled. Size has increased somewhat to 1,350 to 1,400 pounds for cows.
Milking Shorthorns can also be double-registered in the American Shorthorn Association (formerly the American Shorthorn Breeder’s Association), where their milking ability is valuable to Beef Shorthorn producers. Milking Shorthorn breeders have participated in both dairy herd improvement and growth and gain performance-testing of calves to encourage beef production.
Although increased milk production is important to dairy farmers, actual cost of production is truly more important. The Milking Shorthorn is renowned for more unassisted calvings, higher protein levels, better feed efficiency, and greater longevity than many other dairy breeds. Good carcass quality is also still possible. Although registrations have dropped somewhat from the 1970s, they have been holding steady at about 3,500 annually.
The ALBC is most concerned about the relatively few Milking Shorthorns that are free of outcrossing. Besides dilution of the breed’s genetic pool, outcrossing can bring increased milk production at the cost of other potentially valuable traits. Improvements made within the breed may come slower, but 100 percent pure Milking Shorthorn breeders have achieved 14,000-to-16,000-pound milk and high protein averages without outcrosses. Lifelong dairy farmers in Illinois, the Kenneth Hoffman family has also demonstrated that the pure Milking Shorthorn is eminently suited to grass-based dairying. Greater hybrid vigor will also be realized if the breed is not diluted with widespread outcrossings.
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. The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds is available at Amazon.