Cattle, like wildflowers and prickly pear, are among the most common sights on a Texas Hill Country drive. But unless you grew up ranching, you probably don’t know your Beefmaster from your Brangus. The ever-growing practice of crossbreeding cattle makes it even tougher to tell what kind of cows are grazing in Highland Lakes pastures.
“It’s becoming more difficult all the time to tell cattle breeds apart,” said Llano County AgriLife Extension Agent Whitney Whitworth, whose family has been ranching since the 1870s.
She helped this reporter narrow down the 60 or so distinct breeds of beef cattle in the United States to the eight most common and distinct varieties you’ll see while cruising around Burnet and Llano counties.
Use this cow-dentification guide on your next Highland Lakes field trip.
Let’s start with the easiest one. The Texas longhorn is the most iconic of the breeds in the Hill Country. While easily identified by its massive horns, it can take up to six or seven years for those horns to grow to legendary proportions, Whitworth said. Longhorns also can be recognized by their rangy build. They come in a variety of colors, however, so don’t just expect the burnt orange of the University of Texas mascot.
Another iconic Texas cattle breed. According to Whitworth, Herefords were just about the only cattle grazing Hill Country fields until the 1960s and ’70s. The breed’s most distinguishing features are a reddish coat and white patches on the face, head, neck, and belly. Many of the mixed-breed cattle in the Hill Country are part Hereford.
This prolific cattle breed has worked its way onto ranches across Texas. The Angus is desirable for its high-quality meat and good temperament, Whitworth said. Although famously jet black, there’s also a red variety with uniform, copper-toned coloring.
Not the most common breed in the Hill Country but just as distinct as a longhorn. Brahmans are wrinkly, floppy-eared, heavily muscled, and known for being tough, heat-tolerant, and insect-resistant. You can’t miss the large hump above their shoulders. Brahmans were imported from India to cross-breed with more delicate cattle lines to toughen them up.
This is what you get when you cross the iconic Angus and the exotic Brahman. This crossbreed has become so successful and common in Central Texas that it has earned its own place on the list. Brangus have the wrinkles and muscle hump of a Brahman and the smooth black or red coloration and milder temperament of the Angus. A true Brangus is five-eighths Angus and three-eighths Brahman.
Charolais (sheh-ru-lay) revolutionized the U.S. beef industry by introducing large, heavy animals into the breeding stock.
“Charolais are huge,” Whitworth said. “They’re masculine cows with big ol’ jug heads. It’s not uncommon for a Charolais bull to weigh over a ton.”
The large animal typically has a white or cream-colored coat. Its hair remains short in the summer but can get a little fluffy in the winter. Despite its size, it is docile. The Charolais breed was developed in France.
The Beefmaster might be difficult to discern from the Brangus. It is one of the few breeds developed solely in Texas, an intricate combination of Brahman, Hereford, and shorthorn cattle born from a breeding program at the Dale Lasater Ranch in Falfurrias. It is typically red — though it comes in other colors — with occasional white patches, like the Hereford. A Beefmaster has the floppy ears, wrinkles, and thick skull of a Brahman.
Many of the cattle you see on today’s Texas ranches are most likely a mishmash of the breeds on this list. One example is the Black Baldy, which is typically the offspring of a Hereford bull and an Angus cow. Breeds like these are common, and many ranchers actively seek out combinations to improve profitability, Whitworth said.