Management topics

Dec 23, 2011

Early history of breed improvement

2011 represents the 90th anniversary of the Western Livestock Journal and in the upcoming Bull Buyers Guide, I will cover the genetic improvement during this period of time. As a precursor, I thought it might be fun to go back in time to see how breeds were originally founded. Significant agricultural improvement According to Warwick and Ligates book, “Breeding and Improvement of Farm Animals,” little improvement of livestock was seen in Britain prior to the 18th century. In England in the year 1700, up to one-half of the land was cultivated in an open field system with different producers’ cattle and sheep grazed together in overcrowded commons. This made it impossible for any individual producer to improve his herd through breeding practices.

One can assume similar circumstances existed for most of Continental Europe. However, with the passing of the feudal system and the manors, and the shift to individual ownership, fields were enclosed and better methods of farming became possible. This not only included the ability to control breeding, but also allowed the cultivation of clover and improved grasses and the development of root crops such as forage turnips for over wintering cattle.

Warwick and Ligates summarized the dramatic changes brought about by these new practices: “How great was the change can be seen in the weights of animals at the famous Smithfield Market. In 1710, beeves averaged 168 kg, calves 23 kg, sheep 13 kg, and lambs 8 kg; in 1795 they averaged 363, 67, 36, and 23 kg respectively (1 kg equals 2.2 lb). Individual initiative, encouraged by enclosures, together with the introduction and use of turnips and clover… helped enormously to bring about these changes.”

As for Britain, improvements in agriculture and animal breeding that started in England in the early part of the 18th century were not seen in Scotland before the middle of the 18th century, and it was not until the latter part of that century that great progress was achieved. Bakewell’s experiment Englishman Robert Bakewell is rightly known as the “Father of Animal Breeding” for his work starting in 1760 breeding English Longhorn cattle as well as sheep and horses. In going about his experiment, Bakewell concentrated strictly on meat production, placing no selection pressure on milk production on the then dual-purpose Longhorns or wool in his sheep. He selected for quick maturing, easy fleshing animals with wide tops and deep chests. Bakewell also performed the first progeny testing by leasing bulls to customers so he could return them to this own farm if they transmitted desirable qualities.

By setting a definite ideal and then breeding the best to the best regardless of relationship, he proved that through the “concentration of the blood (line- and inbreeding) of animals possessing desired characteristics” ani mal type could be fixed and true breeding strains established. However, Bakewell’s experiments were not without detractors and controversy. This is summed-up well by Alvin Sanders, in his book “Short-horn Cattle.”

“The idea was diametrically opposed to the principles and practices governing the operations of Bakewell’s contemporaries. Incestuous breeding of animals was held in abhorrence, and when Bakewell began breeding… from close affinities his neighbors gave him credit for being quite daft.”

These criticisms soon subsided when Bakewell’s breeding methods “began to yield marvelous results,” and King George III himself made personal inquiries about Bakewell’s “new discovery in stock breeding.” It was the implementation of these principles (like begets like) that resulted in the formation of modern breeds as we know them. After a yearlong internship with Bakewell, Charles Collings in 1784 became the first to implement Bakewell’s methods with his Shorthorn cattle. Bakewell’s concepts later spread to other areas of Britain, as well as Continental Europe, resulting in the formation in the other modern day breeds we are familiar with.

Due to Bakewell’s notoriety and success, English Longhorn cattle enjoyed a brief period of high popularity. Sanders noted that “orders for breeding stock began to come from all over the island.” Undoubtedly, some of this improved breeding stock found its way to progressive breeders throughout the island representing all breeds.

Robert Bakewell: the "Father of Animal Breeding".

However, early in the 1800s, Shorthorn eclipsed Longhorn cattle as the preferred improved breed, and the English Longhorn eventually faded to obscurity.

Even if the Longhorn breed itself was not meant to have a lasting impact, Bakewell’s ideas, theories and practices profoundly changed the course of animal agriculture. A delightful sketch by Ralph Waldo Emerson, great-grandfather of Red Angus founding member Waldo Emerson Forbes, provides a wonderful perspective on British practicality and Bakewell’s legacy:

“The native cattle are extinct, but the island is full of artificial breeds. The agriculturist Bakewell created sheep and cows and horses to order, and breeds in which everything is omitted but what is economical. The cow is sacrificed to her bag; the ox to his sirloin.” — Dr. Bob Hough [Dr. Bob Hough has served as the executive vice president of the Red Angus Association of American and more recently as executive vice president of the North American Limousin Foundation from 2009 to early 2011. He is now a consultant, freelance writer and semi-retired.] 1Includes excerpts from the book “The History of Red Angus by Dr. Bob Hough