Red Poll Cattle: Heritage Livestock Breeds

Hardy and gentle Red Poll cattle produce enough beef and milk to work as dual-purpose homestead livestock.

| July 12, 2010

A heritage livestock breed known for their deep red coloring, Red Poll cattle are also an early-maturing meat production cow. Also a good milking cow breed, Red Poll cattle make an ideal homestead livestock choice. Norfolk and Suffolk Counties lie on the large East Anglian peninsula on the eastern coast of England. This area includes dark, rich farmland, the reclaimed marshland of the Broadland, and the sandy heath of the Breckland. After Roman control of Britain ended, Saxons from the Danish and northern German coast settled throughout eastern England. Viking raiders later came from Norway, and these invaders owned both red and dun-colored polled cattle, which they probably introduced to the country. Combined with the native cattle, local breed types arose that were well suited to the needs of the farmers and dairymen.

The now extinct Suffolk Dun was a cow of exceptional milking ability. Even with minimal feeding and care, the Suffolk Dun was thought to be the greatest producer in England. The polled Suffolk Dun was a small cow with lean dairy conformation, a large belly to accommodate large amounts of poor roughage, a large udder, and a ridged backbone. Although the breed was named for the traditional dun color, in shades of yellowish brown to mouse gray, the Suffolk Dun was also colored cream, brindle or red. The dun color was not especially striking, and that may have affected its loss of popularity in favor of such colors as the dramatic reds. Had it survived, the Suffolk Dun would have been very useful to dairy farmers and breeders.

In Norfolk, the descendents of old middle-horned cattle were often colored red with a white face. Although some writers in the 18th century disparaged the local Norfolk Red, others noted the breed’s hardiness and ability to grow beef.

Guided by the belief that their local cattle were the most suited to the land, dual-purpose breeders began to merge the best of the two breeds around the beginning of the 19th century. One breeder named Jonas Reeve displayed his New Red Polled cattle at the Norfolk Show even earlier. The two counties of Norfolk and Suffolk merged their agricultural societies in 1846 and classes for the new breed, called the Improved Norfolk and Suffolk Red Polled, were seen at the Royal Agricultural Society show by 1862. The first herd book was published in 1874, and the name was changed to Red Poll in 1882. There was no provision for upgrading. Milking records were included 10 years later.

The first herd book established red as the official color of the breed. The deep, rich red remains the preferred color. White is seen in the hair on the tail switch and in front of the udder. The udder is large and prominent. Any trace of horns or scurs has become unacceptable. The Red Poll gives the impression of a short cow, but it is heavy and sturdily built. Bulls weigh about 2,000 pounds and cows about 1,250 pounds.

The 1940s and 1950s were the height of the Red Poll’s popularity, especially in East Anglia, where it was the dominant breed. Red Poll owners admit that the demand for breeding stock caused unsuitable animals to be used, which affected the breed’s reputation.

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