A symbol of the Wild West, the Texas Longhorn is the only breed of cattle that evolved to adapt to life in the Western United States. Currently, the Longhorn is much less popular than British Breeds like the Angus and Charolais, but for decades the Longhorn was the backbone of the American beef herd.
Not long after Columbus discovered America, Spanish explorers brought Andalusian cattle to Central America. These cattle interbred with native Mexican cattle. Over the years, the herds spread and adapted to the dry climate and rugged terrain of the Southwest. Eventually, these cattle became known as the American Longhorn.
At this time, cattle were not fenced and managed as many farmers and ranchers do today. Before the advent of barbed wire, cattle were left to fend for themselves on the open range. Owners kept track of their animals by branding them. Each spring, the ranchers would gather their herds and brand the new calves. Cows and calves belonging to neighboring ranches were returned to their owners.
Because of the way that cattle were raised, ranchers needed hardy, independent animals. The Texas Longhorn fit the bill. Long curved horns helped these animals protect themselves, and sturdy constitutions allowed them to thrive without much human interference. The arrival of the railroad marked the start of the decline of the Longhorn. Polled cattle were more convenient for owners to ship East for slaughter because more animals could be packed into a railroad car. By the end of the 19th century, Longhorn cattle were getting rarer. However, in the 1920s the United States government set up a preserve for Longhorn cattle.
Longhorn cattle have distinctive, long, curved horns. These horns can grow up to eight feet from tip to tip. They are available in a wide variety of colors and patterns. Currently, speckled and spotted Longhorns are in vogue, although purists insist that the original Longhorn was more likely a solid brown or red-brown color.
Texas Longhorns are renowned for their breeding abilities. The cows can breed by the time they are a year old, and they are fertile for up to twenty years. Because of the small heads of their calves, calving problems with Longhorns are extremely rare.
Amazing Foraging Abilities
Unlike many other cattle breeds, Longhorns can withstand drought fairly well. These cattle are excellent foragers and can thrive on pasture that is scrubbier than many European breeds. In areas like the West that have been plagued by cycles of drought in the past twenty years, Longhorns might be the answer to beef ranchers' problems. Longhorns, however, do take longer to reach their mature size. This is a disadvantage in most conventional beef operations that want steers to reach maturity quickly.
For Texans, the Longhorn is a part of their heritage. However, for many beef farmers, the Longhorn may become the basis for a specialty operation. Many Longhorn farmers find success by marketing their beef directly to consumers rather than through traditional sale barns that ding the farmer for those massive horns. Some consumers will pay a premium to eat delicious beef that has a unique history associated with it.
Photo taken by Mike entitled "Longhorn Brunch" via Flikr.