The production characteristics which vary from breed to breed include: growth rate and mature size, milk production, fattening ability, age of sexual maturity, and the breeds themselves.
Growth rate and mature size
Growth rate is proportional to mature size. The largest breeds are the fastest growing; they also have the highest feed requirements. The best mature size in the breeding animals is mainly determined by the carcase weight required.
The aim should be to use cows with the highest milking capability but a low incidence of metabolic disease such as milk fever or grass tetany. They should also be able to maintain adequate body condition for high fertility with little need for supplementary feeding in most years.
In low rainfall areas, cows with high milk production will lose body condition and suffer reduced fertility. In higher rainfall areas, and with good pasture, cows with low milk production will become overfat and still produce a poor calf.
Under medium and lower nutrition, below 710 mm (28 inch) rainfall, medium milk producers such as the Angus x Hereford female are the most productive.
Increased muscling is associated with increased saleable meat yield and a higher carcase value. Heavier muscling can lead to increased calving difficulty but generally it is birthweight (i.e. size of the calf) which increases calving difficulty the most.
As cattle develop towards maturity, they produce heavier and fatter carcases. Better nutrition results in faster growth and heavier, fatter carcases at a given age. Cattle of greater mature size within a breed also produce heavier carcases at a given age but with no increase in fat thickness at that age. A particularly high level of nutrition (e.g. lot feeding) can increase fat thickness in relation to the carcase weight.
The ability to develop fat on the outside of the carcase varies greatly between breeds. Generally, fattening ability is greater for the British beef breeds, intermediate for the dairy breeds and lowest for the large European breeds.
If a bull of a large European beefbreed is mated to British beef breed cows, the progeny will grow about 10% faster but, at a given weight, will only have half as much fat cover as the progeny of British breed cattle.
Cattle breeds can be grouped according to their general characteristics, or “average performance”, and this can be a guide to market suitability.
The traditional British breeds such as Angus, Devon, Hereford, Murray Grey and Shorthorn are noted for their finishing ability but their growth rate and milking ability is normally in the low to moderate range.
The British “red” breeds such as Lincoln, Red Poll, South Devon and Sussex generally have moderate to high milking ability and growth rate but often show less muscling.
The European beef breeds such as Charolais, Simmental, Limousin, Blond d’Aquitaine and Chianina are noted for their high growth rate, excellent muscling and ability to produce a very lean, high yielding carcase. Whether this leanness is an advantage or a disadvantage depends on feed conditions, age at slaughter and market requirements. The disadvantages of the large European breeds under Australian conditions can be increased incidence of calving difficulty and higher feed requirements.
European breeds are widely and successfully used as terminal sires (i.e. all offspring are slaughtered, no heifers are retained for breeding).
The dairy breeds such as Friesian, Ayrshire, Dairy Shorthorn, Guernsey and Jersey are known for their milking ability and early puberty but they must be well fed to sustain high levels of production. Further disadvantages include the yellow fat of the Jersey, which is heavily discounted due to the consumers’ preference for white fat, and the poor muscling or conformation of all the dairy breeds.