Red Poll Cattle: Heritage Livestock Breeds

Hardy and gentle, and an ideal dual-purpose livestock breed.

1 / 5
Red Poll cattle are naturally hornless (polled), long-lived and easy to manage.
2 / 5
Red Poll cattle were once regarded as a dual-purpose breed in the United States until emphasis on meat production led to them being declared a beef breed in 1972.
3 / 5
Red Poll herd owners admire the breed’s maternal instinct and gentle nature. Red Polls have excellent crossbreeding possibilities.
4 / 5
Red Poll cattle mature early and are abundant milkers. In fact, breeders have said that they dramatically lose weight during milking and then gain it all back after calves have been weaned.
5 / 5
Red Poll cattle have a reputation for being easy to handle because of their calm disposition.

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.

The “Improved Norfolk” and “Suffolk Red Polled”

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 Cost of High Demand

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.

Facing increased pressure from the Friesian in dairying, the society introduced Danish Red cattle and created a more productive British Red or Danish Red section in the herd book. Some longtime breeders were so offended that they removed themselves from the society. Others saw the breed’s most admirable traits slipping away. The Red Poll was an early maturing, hardy, long-lived breed that did not need large amounts of concentrates to produce beef and milk. There was also concern that Danish cattle introduced fertility problems into the breed.

With the failure of this experiment, breed numbers fell until the society was reorganized in 1980. At that time, there were some 20 herds and 148 registered cows. Only 13 herds were being milked. Additional Red Polls may have been present in milking or suckler herds.

The Future of the Breed

The Red Poll Cattle Society and the RBST have encouraged the traditional traits and uses of the breed, and there are now about 1,000 breeding females. Red Polls are used equally in dairy and suckler herds, with cows often able to nurse a second adoptive calf as well. Their milk has small, easily digestible fat globules. Cows average about 8,800 pounds of milk annually, with some dairy farmers achieving even higher yields while still using farm-raised forages. The society and RBST are also promoting a milk-recording program to assist breeders in breeding choices. Bull calves and heifers not needed as replacements can be raised for excellent returns as beef.

Many British breeders feel that the Red Poll’s future lies in preserving its dual nature, feeling that it cannot compete with the fashionable breeds in either milk or beef production. A solid, economical dual-purpose breed will continue to find a place on farms.

Popularity Across the Pond

The Red Poll actually achieved greater popularity in the United States before it did in Britain. The old Norfolk and Suffolk cattle had made their way to the United States during colonial times but did not survive as breeds. From 1873 to 1887, more than 300 Improved Norfolk and Suffolk Red Polled cattle were imported from England. The American Red Poll Cattle Association was formed in 1883. With the development of the railroads, western ranches began looking toward the beefy polled breeds of Britain, including the Angus, Galloway and Red Poll.

Canadian ranches also imported the Red Poll, which were often called moolies or mulies, from the Celtic word for polled. In eastern Canada, the government of New Brunswick was in possession of a small herd by 1873. The most successful breed promoter was H. C. Clendening of Manitoba, who assisted in the formation of the Canadian Red Poll Association in 1906. The breed became very popular in the 1950s but has decreased significantly since then. Canadian registrations average about 220 annually. Although commercial dairy herds were in existence until the early 1980s, the breed is also promoted for cow-calf beef production. The greatest number of herds is now in Alberta and Ontario. The association has maintained a closed herd book, and purebred cattle can be traced back to the English imports.

In the United States, the Red Poll was regarded at first as a dual-purpose breed, displaying the variation in type from a dairy to beefy appearance. Mainly building on the stock present in the country, the numbers of Red Poll cattle increased until the American association was registering about 6,000 head each year by the late 1920s. The Depression years caused a slight setback in numbers, but registrations resumed at about the same numbers by the 1950s. At about this time, the beef production traits began to be encouraged until the Red Poll was officially declared a beef breed in 1972, and soon after, the name was changed to the American Red Poll Association.

Unfortunately, the population was also decreasing. Since the 1960s, the breed has averaged fewer than 2,000 registrations annually. In 1990, this number was about 1,400, with only one milking herd remaining in production. Upgrading is allowed in the registry.

Benefits of Red Polls

Red Polls are early maturing cattle that produce a choice carcass at 14 months of about 650 to 700 pounds. Mature bulls weigh 1,800 to 2,200 pounds and cows 1,100 to 1,300 pounds. The darker red color is more popular, but Red Polls are seen in various shades of red. White is often seen on the underline, udder and tail switch.

Red Polls are still abundant milkers and therefore do well in crossbred calf operations. Breeders report that, because the cows are so milky, they lose weight dramatically during nursing and regain it after weaning. Herd owners also appreciate the Red Poll’s maternal traits and easy-to-handle temperament. As crossbreeding use increases, the challenge will be to maintain sufficient purebred animals. Breeders also need to retain the breed’s excellent milking ability. Red Polls are notably long-lived, hardy and gentle. Their feet are especially strong, and their pigmented skin affords them excellent protection against sunburn.

The American Red Poll has demonstrated its excellent crossbreeding possibilities in specific situations. The Red Poll has contributed to the Senepol, developed in St. Croix by crossings with the African N’Dama. Senepols are growing in popularity on the U.S. mainland as well. The Red Poll has also performed well in Jamaica, originally as a dairy animal but later shifting to beef production. A small introduction of Zebu genetics has given these cattle — now known as the Jamaica Red — additional tropical strengths but has not overwhelmed the breed. The Jamaica Red is very popular and successful on Jamaica, and it enjoys a tremendous export market that actually exceeds supply. The Red Poll has also been crossed on Pitangueiras and Velazquez cattle in South America.

British and American Red Polls have been exported to Australia, New Zealand, South America and parts of Africa, where they are used for dairy, suckler and beef herds.

Our thanks to Yale University Press for its kind permission to post this profile from The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds by Janet Vorwald Dohner (Yale University, 2001). This book describes the history and characteristics of almost 200 breeds of livestock.