When cattle weights began to be recorded in the 1960s, it became apparent that calves from European breeds (known as exotic breeds) gained weight much faster than British breeds. They also grew to heavier mature weights. In Britain, cattle had been selected for early maturity and meat production, resulting in smaller animals. European cattle were used as draught animals up to the 1920s, so size and bulk were important.
New Zealand beef breeders hoped to use these large animals to improve the productivity of traditional breeds. However, exotic cattle also had problems – calving difficulties and high feed requirements. As a result, they did not replace Angus and Hereford cattle in commercial herds. Instead they are used almost exclusively as terminal sires (sires that breed animals for meat, not further breeding).
The Charolais was the first exotic breed introduced into New Zealand. It was developed in the Charolles district of central France, where it was used as a draught animal and noted for its meat quality. Charolais semen was imported for trials at Lincoln and Ruakura in 1965, and by a commercial farmer the following year.
Live cattle were later imported, resulting in a pure French Charolais type. A ‘New Zealand Charolais’ has also been developed by mating Angus or Hereford cows with Charolais sires over five successive generations.
Charolais are large, muscular horned cattle with white or very light straw-coloured coats. Their high growth rates have made them popular as terminal sires for beef production.
The Simmental originated in western Switzerland, and is the second most common cattle breed worldwide. Although pure Simmental cattle make up only 1% of the New Zealand beef herd, the bulls are popular as terminal sires, and are widely mated with Angus, Hereford, and Angus–Hereford-cross cows.
The Simmental was initially bred for milking as well as meat, and was used as a draught animal. Specialised breeding in different countries has led to variations. However, in general the Simmental is a large, well-muscled horned cow. It is light straw to dark red in colour, with white patches on the head, underside and legs, and often dark patches around the eyes.
The cows have good maternal qualities and a good milk yield, so they produce well-grown weaners. Simmentals have excellent rates of growth and feed conversion – they turn more of their feed into meat than some breeds.
Limousin cattle arrived in New Zealand in the mid-1970s. They have become popular for their hardiness, docility and meat quality, and are widely used as terminal sires.
Limousin cattle are an ancient breed from the Massif Central in France, where they had to cope with poor-quality pasture. This ability has been passed down to the modern breed. Originally a draught animal, they have been used for meat production from the late 19th century.
The modern Limousin is a medium-sized, well-muscled animal with a rich golden-brown coat. Limousins mature earlier than most European breeds and are renowned for their high-quality carcass, with a high meat-to-bone ratio.
Other exotic breeds
Many breeds of beef cattle have been imported into New Zealand since the 1960s, mostly from Europe, but some from Australia, the US and Japan. Many are represented by only a few herds and have had little influence on beef production. They include:
- Belgian Blue
- Murray Grey
- Santa Gertrudis
- Shaver Beef