From Big to Small to Big to Small: A Pictorial History of How We’ve Changed What Cattle Look Like

How did we get to the cattle we have today? Where should we go from here? These are some of the questions Dr. Harlan Ritchie worked to provide answers to in his long and distinguished career at Michigan State University. In this series, we'll share pictures and history that he put together. We hope it gives you some food for thought as you consider what you want out of the cattle you raise. Attempts to improve cattle started in the British Isles in the mid–1700’s when farmers began recording ancestry and developing local breeds. The same occurred later on the continent of Europe. Early European cattle were used primarily for draft and milk. They were extremely large-framed, late-maturing, light-muscled and slow to finish. When they went to market at 3-5 years of age, they were very rough and patchy. The early British breed improvers set about to reduce frame size, hasten maturity, increase thickness of fleshing and the ability to finish at a younger age and lighter weight. This trend continued until the late 1950’s. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here's a look at the transition starting in 1742. From 1742, here is "Silver" cow,

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6 thoughts on “From Big to Small to Big to Small: A Pictorial History of How We’ve Changed What Cattle Look Like

  1. I always wondered about the old prints showing the ancestors of present beef breeds, artistic license? good to see confirmation of actual conformation in the photos, and I look forward to seeing evolution in the next stages. Thanxx Kathy

  2. Great article, it would also be interesting to follow the average height of humans along this timeline. I suspect humans are taller on average and maybe the reference point for what was a tall animal has changed?

    1. I just read that the average woman today weighs more than the average 1960s man. Perspective is everything!

  3. Very good article Kathy! You did your research for sure, and thank you! Looking forward to the next installment…!

    1. Thanks, Ben, but it wasn’t me who did the research. It was Harlan Ritchie we have to thank for this. I’m adding the next part now for next Tuesday! 🙂

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