The Angus Breed Is Great But…
First of all, I just want to say this: to those of you who are proud owners of Angus cattle, I mean no offense. I respect the breed myself, and I know what these kind of cattle as well as the breed itself is capable of, but there are several things that people need to know about this breed, the truth about C.A.B (Certified Angus Beef) itself–not what the American Angus Association leads the majority of its consumers to believe–and how other major beef breeds in North America are following and taking advantage of it. The Angus breed is great, but it has its limitations. There are some things to do with the C.A.B label that will catch up with the breed association someday that I will talk about later in this article.
Angus cattle, or, as some folks call them, Aberdeen Angus cattle, are a naturally polled (genetically hornless) all-black breed of beef cattle that originated from the counties Angus and Aberdeen, in the United Kingdom country of Scotland. Though it was thought that these polled cattle are either aboriginal to Scotland or come from Egypt or Siberia, as a number of historians have considered, the Aberdeen Angus breed itself wasn’t officially recognized as a breed until the mid 18th century. Angus cattle were imported from Scotland to America in 1873, years after Columbus arrived with horned Spanish cattle we know know as Texas Longhorns, and after the Hereford breed started making its mark on the American landscape. Angus cattle herds were built up by buying livestock directly from Scotland, and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the Angus breed as able to grow and multiply on its own.
The Hereford breed was predominant across North America until the late 1950s when more breeds were shipped in from Europe, and changes were seen in consumer demand for leaner, more tender beef. Producers started looking for cattle that were easier to manage and also met the market’s demands, and consequentially the Angus breed had all the qualities that these producers were looking for: good mothering ability, good calving ease, great carcass merits, good fertility, awesome ability to produce calves with optimum heterosis when crossed with other breeds, etc., and so the breed expanded from there, and grew in popularity.
Originally, the Angus breed were small-sized cattle, cows weighing no more than 1100 lbs, and bulls no more than 2200 lbs. However with a growing population, more mouths to feed (not to mention larger bellies to fill), a greater demand by producers for larger calves and consequently, larger framed bulls and cows to accommodate for the larger calves, had to increase ten-fold. Continental breeds including Charolais, Limousin, Simmental, Maine Anjou, Gelbvieh and Saler helped boost the frame-size of these small black cattle, with cross-breeding programs and more intensive selection on frame size in seedstock (purebred) herds. There are Angus producers out there who argue that this is false, that simply selection for bigger cattle was the cause for larger-framed Angus cattle, but I have my suspicions–and it certainly doesn’t explain the sudden increase in frame size over a 20 to 30 year period (1950s to 1970s when the Continentals “invaded” North America) either! Every breed that has a “closed book” can claim to fame that they are “pure” with no outside breed influence, but I can tell you that a lot of that is just a lot of dirt swept under the rug.
Today, we see Angus cows that range from 1200 lbs to over 2000 lbs, and bulls from 2400 lbs to almost 3000 lbs. I call these “monster cows” since they are absolutely huge when you get up close and personal to one of these beasts.
The Angus breed has taken off thanks to market demand for these kind of cattle, and to the American Angus Association for doing a lot of promotional talks and advertising to cattle producers alike, as well as to (and especially) the consumer of how the Angus breed is better than any other breed in terms of beef quality and ability to “do well” or “do better than any other breed” in their operations, in a manner of speaking. But in reality, there is no such thing as “best breed”. There never is and never will be.
Not all farms and ranches of America and Canada have a climate that is like that of Scotland, where there is abundant forage for most of the year, it is cool and moist, with good terrain meant for pasturing cattle. There are thousands of micro-environments that differ in vegetation, soil, climate, topography/terrain, and seasonal fluxuations. But it doesn’t end there. There are farmers and ranchers who have their own philosophies, management criteria, personal preferences, experiences and peer-influences which determine whether raising Angus cattle is right for them or not. Canada seems to have more of these type of cattle producers than America, to my own eyes that is, though I could be wrong.
For example, Angus cattle in the Southern United States actually do very poorly when compared to Brahma, Brahma-cross and Bos taurus heat-tolerant cattle like Gelbvieh, Texas Longhorn and Hereford. Ask any Angus producer down there and they won’t hesitate to tell you how their cattle are mostly in the shade or wading in a deep pool during the hottest days,and are only able to graze a few hours of the day. They cannot stand the hordes of insects and parasites that are commonly found in this climate, and hence face a lot of misery and suffering if not properly cared for by their herdmaster. Two things are the reason they cannot survive in this climate:
- No sweat glands in their skin, and
- Thin, black hide.
European cattle have no sweat glands on any part of their body except their noses, and thus cannot release enough heat energy from their bodies fast enough before they succumb to heat-stroke or heat-exhaustion. Angus cattle have thin skin, which makes it easy for insects and parasites to burrow into and lay their eggs, and for insects to inflict nasty, itchy wounds on these poor beasts. The colour of their hide doesn’t help matters either, for black tends to absorb heat, which comes directly from the sun’s rays, making the animals even more hot and miserable. Ironically, Brangus are the opposite: though they have the black colour from the Angus part of the breed, the hide is much thicker, more impenetrable to insects, looser, and have more sweat glands than Angus cattle could ever dream of. All thanks to the Brahma-part of this composite breed.
Brahman cattle have loose, thick hide with sweat glands in it to help dissipate heat and ward off most parasites and insects that would drive an Angus cow mad. Their large ears also aid in heat dissipation. Herefords, a British breed like the Angus, have thick skin like Brahmans do and red and white hair which does not absorb heat energy as readily. Though they have no sweat glands unlike the Brahmans, they are able to live and “do well” in hot, arid and most subtropical environments like South Africa, Uruguay and Argentina. Texas Longhorn cattle are no different, which makes them and the Hereford breed the reason for their existence and popularity during their time as the top range-cow breed of choice for ranchers in the American Old West!!
Today it seems most producers are quick to jump on the Black Bandwagon because of the premiums and market potential that their black cattle get, not realizing that there are other breeds of cattle out there (hundreds, in fact) that could probably do well if not better than the Angus cattle they are now raising. This is much more of a “problem” in the USA than in Canada. However I shouldn’t say that most producers are blind to the fact that there are better breeds for them to use, as many of them are very much aware of that fact, but have chosen to raise Angus cattle because that’s the only way they can actually make a little money from their “bovine-farming” venture.
That’s where the biggest problem lies: where they could raise a different breed, the conventional market wouldn’t let them get anything for it. Thus the only way they see that they can actually make some money in the cattle industry is by raising the kind of cattle that are popular on the market already and possibly will be in the near future, thanks the Certified Angus Beef program and you, the consumer, for that very reason!
The Problem with C.A.B
C.A.B or Certified Angus Beef is a marketing campaign initiated by the American Angus Association to “make” more people eat more Angus beef.
A marketing campaign that has been a little too successful, if you ask me.
It has appropriately taken advantage of the stupidity, blindness, and carelessness of most consumers who purchase and eat C.A.B beef either off the counter in their local superstore, from a high-end restaurant or diner, or even a fast-food restaurant. Why do I say this? Because of the most obvious reason: these consumers cannot nor will not ask nor attempt to trace this cut of beef back to what breed or breeds it came from. They don’t know nor do they really care. They don’t even have the time to care. All they know is that if this slab of steak served on a styrofoam platter wrapped in cellophane has an Angus Certified sticker on it, then it must be Angus beef. All they care about that slab of beef they just bought is if it tastes good and is a consistent product like the C.A.B program has marketed it out to be, and like chicken and pork always has been.
But the question is: Is that C.A.B labelled beef really from a purebred Angus bovine??
I wouldn’t know, they wouldn’t know, and nor would you: When the hide comes off, they all look the same, no matter what breed or mix of breeds it is. All that matters is if the carcass meets the C.A.B criteria and, as mentioned above, it’s a consistent product that consumers are always looking for in any food product they purchase. But regardless, that slab of beef could have come from an Angus-Simmental-Limousin-Hereford cross steer, or even a Black Simmental. Sure there’s a lot of Angus cattle around, but there are just as many, if not more, cattle that are just black. The thing of it is, if the animal is black and has the carcass traits that meet Certified Angus beef standards, then it gets the C.A.B label. The steer that is slaughtered and gets stamped with the C.A.B label could be anywhere from 98% Angus to less than 25% Angus. Somewhere I read that a steer should be 51% Angus to meet C.A.B standards, but I’ve got my suspicions. Besides, really, who’s going to check on that to make sure? Not many… One thing is undoubtedly true: Black cattle get a premium in the salebarn, as does the cut of beef with the C.A.B label at the supermarket.
The fact that cattle are all black will never, ever guarantee they pure Angus. There is a whole mix of breeds that are more than capable of producing black polled cattle that are not Angus: Gelbvieh, Simmental, Limousin, Maine Anjou and Salers are the top 5 breeds that have infused Angus genetics into their breeds to:
- Get a premium at the salebarn and
- Still get away with being called purebred Gelbvieh, Simmental, etc.
I found it quite surprising that a Simmental cow that is 7/8 Simmental and 1/8 Angus, with the physical colouration being solid black, could be registered as a purebred cow. In my book, that is not “purebred.” Purebred should be a breed with a lot smaller fraction of other-breed influence, or next to none, in their bloodline. However, such breeding guidelines can have their problems than the open-book guidelines that most Continental breeds allow.
Thus, the black cattle market and the infusion of Angus genetics into the five afforementioned breeds has, in turn, taken advantage of the American Angus Association’s C.A.B marketing campaign by many wise beef producers alike who seen the holes in what, to the Angus folks, seemed like a great plan at the time!
The take away message I have for anybody who has read this in full and has not been discouraged through boredom by its length, is if they really care about where their beef comes from, how it was produced, where it was produced, who it was produced from, why, and when, is to buy locally raised beef and try beef from a farm that does not raise Angus cattle. That way you can see for yourself if Angus really is “the best” or not, or understand that it’s really a lot of tom-foolery and false advertising.
Also, don’t be fooled by what is advertised on the label. It may turn out to be not what you expected or imagined, especially if you do your research. Too many people take many things like food for granted, and this is a big problem among those who are several generations removed from the farming community.