We think its kind of unfair that the Texas Longhorn gets all the attention, don’t you? Afterall, the first beef cattle in the United States originated right here in Florida, when the Spaniards imported them in the early 1500s. And why should we be humble about it, when virtually every strain and breed of cattle in the United States started in Florida?
The original cattle as we mentioned, originated from Central and South America. They were the Criollo cattle, from which all American beef cattle are descendant from. The Florida Cracker Cattle have also been called Piney Woods, Florida Scrub or Florida Native Cattle. That was a nod to the early days when Florida cattle actually flourished in the wild, before they were domesticated before the American Civil War.
But with our rich Cracker Cowboy history, the breed has adopted the name which is unique to Florida. Are they the same kind of cattle? There are a few differences between the famous Texas Longhorn and the Florida Cracker Cattle. First of all, Florida Cracker cattle are a little smaller in size, and they evolved to have a shorter span of their horns.
Which is a good thing; can you imagine one of our local cattle trying to make it through brush and scrub with a 7” or wider rack of horns? That would be a little difficult. This also happened because the quality of forage they had in the early days (before pasture management) was less nutritious. They didn’t grow as big, because their diet was impacted by lower quality forage (at that time) in Florida.
They share some of the same color and coat markings however, as the Texas Longhorn. But one of the differences is that Cracker cattle reach the age of puberty much faster than the Longhorn. They are also more fertile and breed far more rapidly and easily than Texas Longhorns. They flourished for over two hundred years in the wild, so that stands to reason that they adopted attributes to expand their herd sizes (even with difficult terrain and regional predation).
Cross Breeding Almost Wiped Out the Cracker Cattle in Florida
Around the 1800’s, different types of cattle and purebred breeds were imported into Florida. At that time, there were still large numbers of Florida Cracker cattle, but they began to crossbreed the local species with Brahman, Hereford and Angus breeds. In fact, it almost wiped out the native Florida cattle breed for good.
But certain ranching families in Florida noted the threat to losing the bloodline forever, and began preserving them in small herds, without crossbreeding. Some of the very desirable characteristics of the Florida Cracker cattle included resistance to heat and weather conditions, and insect born illnesses.
The State of Florida began a preservation program in 1970 for Florida Cracker Cattle, and they funded and supervised the maintenance of four herds at different locations across the state. The Florida Cracker Cattle Breeders Association was founded in 1989, and that group registered 400 animals that were certified as original bloodline to the earliest descendants of the Florida Cracker cow.
If you are driving through cattle country in Florida, you may recognize Florida Cracker cows for their unique coloring and curved short horns. They can be dappled grey and blue, a solid brown, solid white, or white with brown or black spots. Some are also completely black coated or have a beautiful pure gold palomino coat.
The temperament of the Florida Cracker cow is also different. They are known to be a gentle breed, easy to manage and less dangerous during handling than other types of cattle. What is really important to note is that the Florida Cracker Cow is truly an endangered species. It is listed by many agencies across the United States, including The Livestock Conservancy as in need of Critical Conservation.
A New Breed of Cattle Innovated in Florida
Have you heard of the Ona White Angus? Think of this type of cattle as a variation of the traditional Black Angus but bred to be more tolerant to Florida’s hot climate. As you can imagine, cattle with a darker coat can suffer some heat effects in our state. But the Ona White Angus story is actually pretty interesting, since it was a breed that was innovated almost by accident.
The University of Florida developed the breed, but in the words of the UF Professor and Center Director John Arthington, it was ‘mostly a mistake’. There was a long-term cattle breeding project lead by professor of genetics, F.M. Peacock at the University of Florida. They experimented with Black Angus, Charolais and Brahman breeding programs, and introduced genetics from other cross-bred cattle including the Simmental and Black Brangus (Zebu Brahman and Angus).
A small percentage of the calves born as part of the breeding program were pure white. They identified the cows that were producing white calves and isolated them, breeding them exclusively with Black Angus bulls over a period of 12 years. What they discovered about the white calves was of particular interest relative to the Florida beef industry.
The white calves, now named the Ona White Angus, were better adapted to handle the hot tropical temperatures of Central Florida. Studies were conducted that revealed the Ona White Angus had lower internal body temperatures than Black Angus, which was a particular advantage for pastures that lacked natural shade. Happier cattle that bear the temperatures better, make for better weight gains and better-quality beef.
If you are driving by a large herd of cattle grazing in Florida, you’ll probably notice the Black Angus hanging out under the shade of trees, for relief from the heat. The Ona White Angus aren’t bothered, and they continue grazing on a hot day. And that means their weight increase is optimized when compared to Black Angus who can become fatigued by the weather.
A breed created right here in Florida, that is ‘dressed for success’ in our unique climate. And that’s something else we can be proud about, as the University of Florida has begun selling cattle from this new breed to ranchers and support the growth of the Ona White Angus.
When you learn about the innovations behind the cattle industry in Florida, it gives us more legitimate reasons to continue to support our local beef industry. Florida beef ranchers provide some of the highest quality beef in the Nation. When you go to the grocery store, make a choice for sustainability and the economic benefit and preservation of our local cattle industry. Choose Florida Raised beef.