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African Cattle Breeds

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South Africa has one of the world’s most developed cattle markets. In addition to massive industries in the United States, Brazil, Japan, Australia, etc., South Africa is well known for high-quality beef and excellent farming practices.

Many people in the United States have no idea there are thriving cattle farms in South Africa because imported beef is so rare here. Other than premium Japanese Wagyu beef, you’ll rarely see steaks, chops, or ground beef from other countries.

nguni cattle at sunset on a farm in Africa

However, beef production has a rich heritage in South Africa, and there are many other countries on the continent with budding cattle industries. Many use imported cows, but there is also a diverse set of indigenous cattle breeds in Africa. You can find unique cattle in places like Ethiopia, Kenya, and around the Sahara Desert.

Many of the African cattle breeds are beautiful, with impressive horns and rich skin colors. However, some are easier to farm than others, especially at the scale necessary for mass production or exports.

Here are some of the most popular African cattle breeds and some information to help you get better acquainted with what’s happening in the cattle farming industry there.

African Cattle History

Records of cattle existing on the African continent date back to around 5,000 B.C. The oldest history shows that cattle were domesticated in western Egypt and were likely descended from cattle that came from earlier domestication efforts in the Middle East.

Over centuries, African cattle adapted to local climate and conditions, and now there are an estimated 800 million cattle owners in Africa.

In many areas, these livestock owners own one or a handful of cows as a source of milk and food and a way to store economic value. They’re also valued highly in local cultures.

Presently, there are more than 100 indigenous African cattle breeds. The variety of cattle depends on size, climate, and country. In Africa, deserts, rainforests, plains, and everything in between exists.

The natural variety gives life to cattle that differ significantly from place to place. Let’s look at some of the most common African breeds.

Zebu and Sanga Cattle Groups

Zebu cattle  in the green grass pasture with sky and trees.

The Zebu cattle group is likely the most common on the African continent. It has a fatty hump on its shoulders and a large body. Zebu cattle deliver high production for farmers. You’ll find that many locals keep Zebu cattle because they are robust animals that do well in almost all conditions.

They’re well-adapted to high temperatures and dry climates and resist ticks better than most cattle breeds. This means farmers don’t have to provide as much maintenance to keep them healthy.

Sanga cattle are humped as well, and they survive in harsh weather conditions. You’ll find them mostly in southern Africa and on the east coast.

Both cattle groups are also sometimes used as riding animals. However, they are better farmed as mild producers for their meat.

African Cattle Breeds

Nguni Cattle

Nguni cow - indigenous cattle breed of South Africa - on a rural farm

A native of southern Africa, the Nguni breed is a mix of European and Indian cows. They are typically very fertile, which makes them a good choice for small farmers who wish to grow their herds quickly. They’re also robust and don’t get sick easily, which helps limit economic loss among livestock owners.

These cows are usually white, brown, or red. They have black noses and small humps on their thorax. They are a popular meat-producing breed. Nguni cattle are a staple in the South African cattle industry.

Historically, the number of Nguni cattle a person owned represented how wealthy they were, and they were often used to pay for wedding dowries and trade.

Boran Cattle

Boran cows have a distinct look punctuated by their tall back hump and low-hanging dewlap. These are some of the most famous cows used for beef anywhere in Africa because of their size and the richness of their meat.

They were initially found in parts of Ethiopia but have since spread across farms in Africa and other parts of the world. One of the best things about Boran cattle is that they mature quickly, which makes them more profitable for farmers.

Boran cattle usually are white or brown. The males typically have a darker color than the cows.

White with brown spots and brown Boran Cattle grazing in the field

Drakensberger Cattle

Drakensberger cattle were first produced in South Africa but have since become one of the world’s most popular milk-producing animals.

As a result, you’ll see them across Europe and other areas, where they are prized at auction. They can grow up to 2,500 pounds, making them one of the biggest cows, but they are generally calm animals.

They usually have thick builds, bulls are often entirely black, and cows and bulls have long, smooth coats. In addition, they have high fertility rates, which makes them a favorite among milk and cattle farmers.

N’Dama Cattle

The N’Dama breed has traditionally been very popular among nomadic African populations. It’s a robust cow that does well on the move and across different climates. You’ll find them in several African countries on the continent’s western coast.

They’ve evolved to be bug-resistant, so they stand up well in fly-infested areas. Many countries outside of Africa import N’Dama cows for this reason. They’re also very resistant to many diseases, which makes them a good choice in places with limited resources.

N’Dama cattle are smaller than many others on this list. They are usually brown and black and can grow to around 800 lbs.

Afrikaner Cattle

Afrikaner Cattle as  forerunners to tractors in modern agricultural operation in South Africa

This South African cattle breed has a rich history in the local cattle industry. This is a staple of many South African farmers and is used in crossbreeding to develop well-suited cows for meat production or milk.

In the past, the United States, Australia, and European countries imported Afrikaner cattle for farming. It was, however, almost driven to extinction in the Second Boer War between the British Empire and the South African Republic.

Afrikaner cattle are brown and red and have large horns. They can weigh up to 1,300 pounds. They have muscular bodies and small humps on their backs.

Bonsmara Cattle

Bonsmara cattle have been around for centuries in South Africa. However, it wasn’t until a mid-20th-century breeding program that they really began to flourish.

Prior to the program, Bonsmara cattle were susceptible to diseases and hot weather. They’re now capable of handling brutal weather and are disease-resistant, making them a top choice for beef production in Africa.

You’ll still see them in their highest numbers in South Africa, but other countries have imported them because of their high fertility rates and the stability of the new species.

Bonsmara cattle can grow up to 1,700 pounds and live up to 20 years. As a result, they are one of the most prized cattle for crossbreeding programs.

Bonsmara cattle in the field, South Africa

Tuli Cattle

Tuli cattle are descendants of the Sanga breed but have evolved in Africa for thousands of years. They’re originally from Zimbabwe and are well-adapted to sandy and dry climates. Their natural evolution has made them a staple in the African cattle industry because they are robust and high-producing animals.

These strong cows have been exported across the world to places like Argentina, Mexico, Canada, Australia, and the U.S. The Tuli was crossed with a Limousin and created the Tulim cattle breed, one of the world’s most popular breeds. There are also large populations of them on farms in South Africa.

Tuli Cattle are moderate in size, mature early, and good-natured. Cows produce calves at a high rate and are resistant to disease.

Abigar Cattle

Abigars are native to Eastern Africa. They’re part of the Sanga family and are used primarily as dairy cows. Some farmers use them for beef, but they’re most prized because they produce large amounts of milk during each lactation.

Due to the stressful nature of climate conditions in their region, Abigar cattle became popular because they performed well in hot temperatures. They’re also disease-resistant and do well in droughts.

You’ll see them on many smaller farms in Africa because they don’t need a lot of maintenance, and families can count on them for steady milk production.

Ankole Cattle

Ankole Cattle resting in a field

Ankole cattle have been part of South Africa’s cattle farming story for centuries. Their breed is depicted on hieroglyphs that date back to over 6,000 years ago in ancient Egypt.

Eventually, they found their way south to Uganda and became part of many crossbreeding campaigns. At a certain point, they were one of the most famous cattle breeds in the beef industry.

They are known for having large amounts of lean meat and premium milk. Their horns are their most unique feature, which grow upward and look like they’re made of ivory. The horns, however, are honeycomb-shaped to keep the animals cool in hot weather.

Ankole cattle come in various colors, from dark brown to white, with brown spots. They do well in hot temperatures and thrive exceptionally well in certain parts of South Africa.

These are just a few of the many indigenous African cattle breeds. As you can see, they are some of the most famous cattle breeds in the world, prized for their premium meat and milk production.