Longhorn cattle, the iconic cattle of Texas ranches and droves, are descended from cattle brought to the US by Spanish explorers in 1494. They became feral and remained so for centuries, during which time natural selection worked on the breed to produce some remarkable characteristics.
The longhorn has a very high reproductive rate – higher than almost any other breed of cattle. The bulls have a high live semen count, and the heifers reach sexual maturity very early. Heifers typically conceive for the first time at the age of 15 months, and continue to calve every year until they are 16 years old.
Ease of calving
This is obviously a genetic trait which was developed by longhorns through the years of living wild. Calves have an unusually low birth weight, and also cows have a larger birth canal than the cows in other breeds do. This adds up to live, unassisted and easy birth of vigorous calves in an average of 99.7% of cases which is remarkably high and very good news for herd owners.
Easy calving is very important for first-time heifers, and it also means that cows are ready to breed again quickly.
Adaptability and browse utilisation
Longhorn can adapt to almost any environment. They thrive in the tropics and they thrive in the icy north of Canada. They aren’t in the least fussy eaters, but are almost like goats in their ability to process such substandard fare as yucca, mesquite and willow. They are even able to safely consume ragwort, which is generally poisonous to cattle. This omnivorous tendency allows ranchers to graze a larger number of animals over a given acreage.
Resistance to disease and parasites
Longhorns are well known for their excellent immune systems and their natural abilities to ward off certain diseases. They have hair and extra wax in their ears which help repel flies, gnats, ticks and lice. The hair on their udder serves the same purpose. Their instinctive answer to screwworms and blowfly worms is to stand in water for hours and drown them.
They are unlikely to get foot rot, or bovine bloat, and they are unaffected by stress-related diseases like pinkeye or shipping fever. Most famously, longhorns were carriers of Texas Fever, via ticks, without actually suffering from the disease, probably owing to an immunity they grew up with.
While most modern owners of longhorn herds carry out regular programmes of de-worming and vaccination, there are some breeders who are vehemently opposed to any vaccinations because they believe that the natural immunities and resistances of the breed will be ruined by them.
Longhorn cattle quite often live into their twenties and there are even records of certain animals that have survived into their thirties. A female can be very productive over her long life. It’s quite possible for her to have 20 calves or more.
Longhorn cattle have a fierce appearance (horns up to 9 feet long) which is possibly why their relative docility comes as a surprise. They have also variously been described as ornery, independent and awkward, but this could derive from the fact that they are intelligent and not as easily led as some cattle.
The females tend not to be quite as friendly as the males. A possible reason for this is that in the wild they would have had to protect their calves. In fact some owners deliberately resist too much handling of the females because they value the natural instincts which make them formidable, priding themselves on the fact that they have never lost a calf to a predator.