The archaeological evidence indicates that cattle were the third species domesticated by man, the first two being goats and sheep. For around seven thousand years man has used cattle as a source of draft power and food. Across those millennium cattle have been changed by man and the environments he took them into.
By the seventeenth century we find Europe filled with cattle of all sizes, shapes, and colors. Each region had at least one cattle type that was well adapted to local conditions and was, in some way, distinct from cattle in other regions. Cattle were multi-use animals, raised primarily to provide draft animals (oxen). Meat and dairy products were important secondary products. The dairy products produced were almost exclusively cheese and butter. Consumption of fresh milk was very limited as fresh milk generally was considered suitable only for infants, very small children, some invalids, and for cooking (mainly in the form of cream).
With few exceptions seventeenth century bovines were smaller than today’s cattle. They and other livestock had for centuries suffered from the agricultural advice given by Greek and Roman writers. Pliny the Elder and other such ancient authorities wrote about conditions that applied only to Central Italy, a fact that those Europeans seeking to follow the “Ancient Authorities” seem to overlook. If rough grazing was good enough for Pliny, then it was good enough for Bauer Schmidt and Farmer Jones.
Despite this, Roman agricultural practices not found in Galen or Pliny did arise across Europe. Farmers have always had an interest in getting the best yield possible from crops and livestock and innovations were attempted. The spread of those techniques that worked wasn’t fast or even. Agricultural theories and advice were spread not only by word of mouth but by pamphlets and books. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Europe was awash in pamphlets and books. Many of these writings contradicted the ancient writers or “explained” what they must have meant. They tended to contradict each other.
There is evidence that as early as the eleventh century Europe had developed at least two plans of crop rotation that were successful enough to have spread widely over two or three centuries. These methods were revolutionary as crop rotation was not included in the Roman or the Greek writings.
Unfortunately where livestock and especially cattle were concerned, the ancient advice was followed for a longer period. The ancient writers stated that a cow should be starved for one to two months before breeding and for up to three months after breeding. This was supposed to improve the quality of the milk. To ensure a bull calf, a north wind had to be blowing when the breeding occurred. Likewise, a south wind would ensure a heifer (female) calf. The quality and condition of the cow was of little importance. She was, as any number of the ancient writers assured, only a vessel for the calf.
The bull was the most important of the animals. One had to be careful in selecting the proper bull and feeding him heavily before breeding. At its most extreme, the idea was that the bull’s semen alone developed into the calf with the cow’s only contribution being her womb. Others would grant that the cow might contribute up to 20% to her offspring, generally as an explanation for a calf having its mother’s coloration rather than its father’s. The arguments over the contributions of the male vs. the female to their offspring continued well into the twentieth century among otherwise learned livestock breeders.
Cattle feed by grazing on grasses and plants. These food sources are generally known as forage. In areas where snow coverage isn’t heavy or long-term cattle can get through a winter with only a little hay to supplement the stubble left in the fields. In places where the grass and stubble are buried for over a month or beneath a foot or more of snow more hay is needed. The problem for cows was that in most places sheep and horses brought the farmer more cash so the majority of supplemental feeds was fed to them rather than the cow.
Sometime during the fifteenth or sixteenth century two new opinions arose concerning cattle. The first was that those cattle that were given supplemental hay and grain survived the winter in much better shape and fattened up quicker in the spring. Fatter cattle brought higher prices at spring sales for slaughter. Pregnant cows that got extra feed over the winter delivered a higher percentage of healthy calves and had more milk. The second idea was that cattle fed root crops such as turnips fattened up better than those fed hay alone. This was a great boon to both the farmers and their cattle. Grain was very expensive and hay production labor-intensive. Turnips were much less costly and labor-intensive to raise and harvest and were easily stored. Cattle could eat both the tops and the root, making turnips an efficient feed.
Better nutrition began to increase the size of cattle which was good for both draft animals and meat animals. One English market recorded a doubling of the slaughter weight* of cattle sold for meat over a century. There is some evidence of a slow but steady rise in the size of cattle across Europe throughout the sixteenth century as the idea of increased nutrition for cattle spread.
Also, across Europe, possibly starting in the Netherlands, small herds started being kept specifically for dairy purposes and others specifically for beef. The cattle were still multi-purpose but the idea of selecting for dairy or beef was there. Those involved in cheese and butter making wanted cows that had high yearly milk yields and better butter fat ratios. Those raising cattle for slaughter wanted higher slaughter weights and a different distribution of muscle and fat. This selection was aided by some types of regional cattle being known for better milk production and others for better beef production.
Late in the seventeenth century several regions saw wealthy breeders increasing attempts to develop cattle either for better beef or for better milk production. Regional cattle types such as the Angus, known for being a better meat than milk producer, began a long alteration. Likewise the Jersey and similar better milk producing types started down their path to the dairy barn. Despite these early breeding efforts the majority of cattle remained mixed purpose. Only the wealthiest could afford single-use or specialty cattle. The cattle in farmers’ pastures continued to be multi-use or what would later be called “un-improved.”
By the mid 1800s intensive and scientific breeding for beef or milk characteristics took off. Increased knowledge of basic genetics allowed for faster development of cattle as beef or dairy types. In addition, cities and industries provided the demand and the money to make breeding and raising specialty cattle profitable.
In Europe the division into beef or dairy proceeded rapidly. Cattle breeds such as the Hereford (England), Angus (Scotland), Piedmontese (Italy), and Limousin (France) were developed and/or altered to provide for the beef market. The increasing demand for dairy products and an increase in demand for fresh milk likewise led to the alteration of Jersey (England), Ayrshire (Scotland), Holstein (Netherlands), and Brown Swiss (Switzerland) into milk producers. Draft usage had largely disappeared by the late 1800s and what oxen were required could be obtained from the ranks of the “un-improved” cattle that continued to make up the majority of small farm stock.
Throughout the twentieth century breeding for either beef or milk accelerated. Today’s beef cattle are different from dairy cattle in many ways. An Angus (beef) cow could still be milked but she won’t produce nearly as much as her Jersey (dairy) cousin. In 2000 a Jersey cow could produce more than six times the amount of milk produced by a Jersey cow in 1900. Beef cattle have undergone similar, if not so dramatic, increases. With beef cattle the alterations have been to produce larger muscle masses in those areas that generate favored cuts of meat. Dairy cattle do still provide meat. When a dairy cow’s milk production drops she is sent to a feedlot to fatten up. Unlike a beef cow, the dairy cow’s slaughter weight will be lower, her meat tougher, lower in grade (less marbling), and certain cuts will be smaller in size.
In 1631 Grantville arrives with beef and dairy cattle that are the end result of intense breeding. They are very different from those cattle found in down-time pastures. The up-time cattle are bigger than all but the largest draft breeds of the seventeenth century and they are clearly divided into beef and dairy breeds. The up-time cattle, however, require more high quality forage and supplemental feed than their down-time counterparts. Compared to their down-time counterparts the up-time Jerseys and Angus are likely to be perceived as pampered, over-fed, and over-sized animals, too expensive and exotic for most farmers. Regardless, there will be interest in what the up-time cattle have to offer. The amount of milk given by the dairy cows and the period of time over which they produce milk will be amazing. Less amazing but still of interest will be the distribution of muscle, fat, and marbling on the beef cattle.
Grantville’s cattle are not being bred and raised commercially. They are backyard animals, mostly raised for 4-H and Future Farmers of America projects. The limited number of up-time cattle means that maintaining specific up-time breeds will be impossible. Distinctions between milking cattle and beef cattle can be maintained but the milking breeds will probably end up as a single generic milking breed as will the beef breeds. Both types will have to adjust to living on regional forage and under regional conditions. Grantville’s cattle and their offspring will probably remain more expensive and more difficult to keep than regional down-time cattle.
Attempts to improve down-time cattle by breeding them to up-time cattle can and will have problems. The biggest is the number of bulls in Grantville—or rather, the lack of bulls. We’ve never identified any bull in the Mannington area. Mature bulls pose many problems to handle and keep and, given the wide-spread use of artificial insemination, this lack of bulls is understandable. It is probable that the only male cattle in Grantville in April, 2000 would have been a couple of calves that haven’t yet been castrated. If so, those calves must grow to maturity. It could take between two to three years, depending upon breed, before they can be used for breeding. Someone might have a few stems of bull semen stored in a freezer but those won’t remain viable for long. Grantville’s cattle consisted of cows, calves, yearling steers, and heifers. The up-time practice of castrating bull calves at an early age may well mean that Grantville is left without any whole male calves unless one or two are born after the Ring of Fire.
The lack of up-time bulls is not all bad. Breeding large bulls to small cows often results in calves that are too large for the cow to deliver. This generally ends in the loss of both cow and calf. The closer in size the bull and cow are, the better the chances are of a successful calving. There also remains the fact that the down-time farmers need cattle that can live off the forage available locally and they still need multi-use cattle that can provide draft, beef, and milk. It will be the wealthier villages and estates that can afford to begin breeding specialized beef or milk cattle. Eastern Europe, especially the traditional cattle raising areas such as Poland, will be interested in the beef breeds. As the dairy-only breeds develop, villages close to large towns and cities may switch to increase their cheese and butter production.
Perhaps the largest obstacle will be introducing an understanding of basic genetics. There are otherwise smart and well educated livestock breeders today who still feel that the bull, stallion, or ram is more important than the cow, mare, or ewe. In the seventeenth century the idea that the bull and cow have equal input and influence on the calf will be radical. Slightly less so, but still on the fringes, will be the idea that the condition, confirmation, nutrition, and health of the cow is important to the ability of the cow to conceive, carry, and deliver a healthy calf.
* Slaughter weight is the weight of the meat less hide and tallow. It is roughly 62% of the live weight of the animal for beef breeds and as low as 50% for dairy breeds.
Sources and Resources
The Size and Weight of Cattle and Sheep in Early Modern Scotland
AJ S Gibson
Comparative Beef Performance of the Large Cattle Breeds of Western Europe. Animal Breeding Abstracts 1971;39:1-26.
Alpine Milk: Dairy Farming as a Pre-modern Strategy of Land Use
Breeds of Beef and Multi-Purpose Cattle