What are dual-purpose cattle?

These are breeds that provide both meat and milk. In the early days of farming, before the horse became the main power source, cattle provided draught power so cattle were in fact triple-purpose.

Examples of some British pure breeds:

  • Shorthorn
  • Red Devon
  • South Devon
  • Red Poll
  • Sussex
  • Dexter
  • Kerry
  • Welsh Black  

How were they used?

The females were farmed for milk and the unwanted males and cull females were kept for beef.

Why did they go out of popularity?

Farmers wanted more specialised breeds. They got fed up with females that went to beef and beef animals that went to milk! The breeding objectives could easily get confused - it was easier to specialise.

Dairy farmers wanted litres, fat and protein - and not beef. Genetic improvement programmes and AB brought about great increases in dairy characteristics. They didn’t want this complicated by beef traits. Beef farmers did not want the excess milk that modern dairy cows were able to produce.

The fact that the Shorthorn was split into a Dairy Shorthorn breed and a Beef Shorthorn breed showed the frustration breeders found with the original Shorthorn breed.

Have dual-purpose breeds got a place today?

Not in the specialist dairy industry, as the pressure is on for more and more efficiency - more fat, protein, litres at a lower body weight. However, for the small farmer on a lifestyleblock we should look at them again.

Why would dual-purpose breeds be good for small farms?

They could provide milk for their own calf and perhaps an extra one. They make ideal house cows and a calf can drink what is left over. Surplus stock would make good beef for sale or home consumption. They would not grow to a massive mature size so would be easy to handle and not pug the ground in winter.

Are there problems with purebreds?

Availability of good stock is a problem as the genetic base has been reduced because of lack of demand. Indeed, some are now classed as rare breeds and their survival is a concern. The Rare Breeds Conservation Society of New Zealand is doing an excellent job working with some of these breeds.

There is a shortage of proven bulls coming through in these minor breeds, as they are not involved in large progeny testing schemes which is the basis of the success of the major dairy breeds like Jersey and Holstein Friesian.

Could we make new dual-purpose breeds?

Yes - and it’s not a bad idea! It could be done by crossbreeding, where you put together any gene combinations that you like. The key is to decide what traits you want.

Crossbreeding gives heterosis or hybrid vigour. This is an advantage the crossbred has over the average of both parents. It can be as much as 13% benefit in survival at birth and growth rate. This hybrid vigour is lost as you keep on crossbreeding. So it’s best to keep to a first cross or second cross.

Example 1

  • Take a Jersey cow as a small efficient dairy animal with too much milk for a small block and mate it to a Hereford bull.
  • Keep the female offspring and rear them for breeding cows.
  • Or buy Hereford x Jersey heifer calves from dairy farmers - there are plenty available.
  • Mate these cows to a different beef breed (eg Angus) and sell all the offspring.
  • This third breed is called a “terminal sire” breed, as all offspring are slaughtered.
  • The large Continental breeds are used widely as terminal sires but be warned. Despite what their breeders say, they do cause an above-average incidence of calving trouble that you don’t want on a small farm.
  • When your Hereford x Jersey breeding cows get too old, buy some more in.

Example 2

  • Buy some Jersey cows and mate them to a bull of the new miniature breeds.
  • You could maybe get this done on contract with a dairy farmer who is mating heifers to beef bulls to avoid calving trouble which is a common practice.
  • Keep these crossbreds as breeding dams and mate them to a miniature breed terminal sire.
  • Do not put a large beef breed across these cows as this will lead to calving problems.