The ori­gins of cat­tle farming

Humans suc­ceed­ed in tam­ing and util­is­ing aurochs over 10,000 years ago. The range of poten­tial appli­ca­tions were diverse. The ani­mals pro­vid­ed milk and meat, and were also ide­al as draught ani­mals. As such, cat­tle undoubt­ed­ly played a sig­nif­i­cant role in humankind’s per­ma­nent set­tle­ment. Our fore­fa­thers devel­oped a large num­ber of cat­tle breeds through breed­ing. The dairy cat­tle breeds we see today are there­fore a snap­shot in time of a decades long selec­tion process, which will also con­tin­ue into the future.  Along­side this evo­lu­tion, farm­ers have also devel­oped sophis­ti­cat­ed herd man­age­ment tech­niques – often with the help of dig­i­tal solu­tions – to facil­i­tate effi­cien­cy gains in milk pro­duc­tion while also pay­ing close atten­tion to the health of their dairy cow herd.

Breed­ing suc­cess­es and cur­rent usage trends – spe­cialised and mul­ti­pur­pose breeds

Nowa­days, the prac­tice of breed­ing dairy cat­tle is based on high­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed meth­ods. The foun­da­tions were laid back in the late 19th cen­tu­ry with the estab­lish­ment of breed­ers’ asso­ci­a­tions, which brought breed­ers togeth­er in a for­mal con­text and enabled them to com­pare their ani­mals’ qual­i­ties and improve breed­ing suc­cess­es. The intro­duc­tion of milk record­ing was also a key turn­ing point. It was intro­duced in Ger­many by the All­gäuer Herde­buchge­sellschaft (All­gäu Herd Book Soci­ety) in 1884 and short­ly after­wards by the Schleswig-Hol­stein asso­ci­a­tions. The core premise of improv­ing the per­for­mance of dairy cat­tle breeds remains unchanged to this day. If any­thing, the con­cept of “per­for­mance” has a sig­nif­i­cant­ly broad­er def­i­n­i­tion. After decades of focus­ing pri­mar­i­ly on milk per­for­mance – in Ger­many, the milk per­for­mance of a dairy cow was 8457 kg in 2020 – dairy cat­tle breed­ing is now focused on a much broad­er range of per­for­mance indi­ca­tors. The empha­sis is now on breed­ing ani­mals that are health­i­er, more robust and more durable. This makes sense both in terms of ani­mal wel­fare and in view of vet­eri­nary costs. The breed­ing meth­ods have also changed over the years of course. Arti­fi­cial insem­i­na­tion has large­ly sup­pressed the pop­u­la­tion of breed­ing bulls and embryo trans­fer is now used in spe­cial­ist breed­ing programmes.

Dairy cat­tle breed­ing is also con­tin­u­ous­ly geared towards changes in the envi­ron­ment and the needs of soci­ety. As such, the wide­spread depar­ture in dairy farm­ing from stan­chion-tied hous­ing to cubi­cle hous­ing has led to changes in breed­ing goals. The con­sumer pref­er­ence for more pas­ture rear­ing has also been reflect­ed in breed­ing work. This specif­i­cal­ly involves the use of cat­tle breeds from France, Scan­di­navia and Great Britain in cross breed­ing. It is also excit­ing to see how the lat­est tech­nol­o­gy influ­ences cat­tle hous­ing. The intro­duc­tion of milk­ing robots has placed a greater empha­sis on teat place­ment. And the increas­ing use of com­put­er-based meth­ods for man­ag­ing herds and herd health will pre­sum­ably also make its mark on our breed­ing endeavours.

Dairy cattle breeds

Pho­to by Karsten Paulick on Pixabay

Beef cat­tle and mar­ket­ing strate­gies – devel­op­ment trends

In beef farm­ing, the pro­duc­tion focus lies on pro­duc­ing beef. The cat­tle breeds used in beef pro­duc­tion main­ly orig­i­nate from France and Great Britain. In con­trast, breed­ing in Ger­many has been pre­dom­i­nant­ly focused on dairy-ori­en­tat­ed dual-pur­pose breeds such as Fleck­vieh and Ger­man Black Pied Dairy Cat­tle, from which the Hol­stein breed orig­i­nates. The advan­tages of beef cat­tle are that they offer improved meat qual­i­ty and car­cass dress­ing. They are kept as pure-bred cat­tle and are increas­ing­ly used for cross-breed­ing with dairy cat­tle breeds.

Beef cat­tle offer unique advan­tages for pre­mi­um meat pro­duc­tion. A high­er per­cent­age of intra­mus­cu­lar fat in the meat of many breeds pro­duces very ten­der, suc­cu­lent meat. Both con­sumers and chefs rave about the extra­or­di­nary taste of the meat from these ani­mals. Excep­tion­al meat qual­i­ty is often not reward­ed via reg­u­lar mar­ket­ing chan­nels, how­ev­er. Direct mar­ket­ing and region­al mar­ket­ing chan­nels, on the oth­er hand, do unlock some poten­tial but it is impor­tant to take into con­sid­er­a­tion the increased labour costs asso­ci­at­ed with these channels.

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