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Use: Large or small, zebus are the quintessential cattle for hot, steamy climates where non-humped Bos taurus breeds fail to thrive. Not only used as beef and household dairy producers in tropic and semi-tropic parts of the world, zebu bulls are used to sire hardy, heat-resistant calves from cows of other breeds. Consider the Brahmin bull in our own Southern states. He’s been used to create breeds as diverse as the Brahmousin (Brahmin and Limousin), Beefmaster (a combination of Hereford, Shorthorn and Brahman genetics), Braford (Brahmin and Hereford), Brangus (Brahmin and Angus), and Santa Gertrudis (a unique blend of Brahmin, Hereford, and Shorthorn genetics blended at the vast King Ranch in Texas).
History: The ancient aurochs, a tall, massively built bovine that once ranged from Asia to Europe and south to the Middle East, was tamed in several locations, one of them being the Indus Valley of Pakistan. These humped cattle became Bos indicus, better known to the modern world as zebus. Two types of zebus call North America home: the Brahman and the Miniature Zebu. Brahmin (sometimes referred to as Brahma) cattle were developed in our Southern states in the early 1900’s using the genetics of four different Indian breeds, some by way of Brazil where zebu cattle are treasured for their heat tolerance, hardiness, and disease resistance. Miniature Zebus are a separate breed and not miniaturized versions of their larger Brahmin cousins. They are descended from Indian Nadudana zebu cattle imported by zoos during the early years of the twentieth century.
Conformation: Zebus of all breeds (and there are an estimated 75 breeds world-wide) have a number of characteristics in common. All have distinct humps over their shoulders and necks that are larger in zebu bulls and steers than the humps on zebu cows. Both sexes have pendulous dewlaps hanging from their necks to provide more skin surface for cooling. Zebus have more sweat glands than non-zebu cattle so they also dissipate heat through sweating. Their unusually mobile, oily skin helps repel bothersome bugs. All have dark skin pigmentation, so skin cancer rarely poses a problem. Zebus are also resistant to tropical diseases like rinderpest in Africa and to parasites that quickly fell European cattle breeds. They’re known for being docile, friendly, intelligent animals when handled with kindness. Most Brahmins are gray, ranging from porcelain to nearly black, but come in other colors, particularly red. Cows weigh in the neighborhood of 1000 to 1400 pounds, while bulls tip the scale at 1600 to 2000 pounds. They’re noted for their long, pendulous ears and attractive, up-curved horns that often tilt back at the tips. Miniature Zebus come in an array of colors including cream, gray, black, red, and spotted. Mature cows weigh only 300 to 500 pounds; bulls, 400 to 600 pounds. They are measured at the withers behind the hump and cannot exceed 42 inches tall at three years of age. Unlike Brahmins, Miniature Zebus have shorter, less pendulous ears. They are registered by two organizations, the American Miniature Zebu Association and the International Miniature Zebu Association. There are fewer than 1000 Miniature Zebu in North America.
Special Considerations/Notes: While most people associate zebus with Southern climes, in fact Brahmins and Miniature Zebus are hardy, adaptable animals that given protection from weather extremes, fare well in Northern states too. Both breeds thrive on low-quality forage. They are exceptionally long-lived and due to their calves’ low birth weight, calving problems are rare indeed.