Cattle Breeds 101: Brahman

When you walk into to cattle barns at the fair, there’s one breed of cattle many people will remember. It’s those cows with the big floppy ears and that big ole hump on their back. They come in shades of gray, red, and even spotted. They’re kinda like gentle giants. These cattle are Brahmans and they’re this week’s breed in the Cattle 101 series.

The modern American Brahman breed can trace it’s roots back to Indian Bos indicus cattle. They are the “sacred cattle” of the Hindu faith and never used for meat in those regions. This also inhibits their importation to the States. The American Brahman traces back to a few imported bulls in the late 1800s and early 1900s. These bulls were crossed with European breeds (Bos taurus) and over time the American Brahman was born. This breed has a huge impact on crossbreeding specifically in the warmer, more humid Southern States due to their ability to withstand adverse conditions.

Physical Characteristics

  • Size. Brahmans are intermediate in size among beef breeds found in the United States. Bulls will generally weigh from 1600 to 2200 pounds and cows from 1000 to 1400 pounds in average condition. The calves are small at birth, weighing 60 to 65 pounds, but grow very rapidly and wean at weights comparable to other breeds.
  • Disposition. The disposition of Brahman cattle is often questioned. Brahmans are intelligent, inquisitive and shy. They are unusually thrifty, hardy and adaptable to a wide range of feed and climate. However, these characteristics also suggest careful, kind handling methods. Brahmans like affection and can become very docile. They quickly respond to handling they receive, good or bad. Well bred, wisely selected and properly treated Brahmans are as easily handled as other breeds.
  • Colors. Brahmans very in color from very light grey or red to almost black. A majority of the breed are light to medium grey. Mature bulls are normally darker than cows and usually have dark areas on the neck, shoulders and lower thighs.
  • Heat Tolerance. Studies at the University of Missouri found that Brahman and European cattle thrive equally well at temperatures down to 8° F. They found that European cattle begin to suffer adversely as the air temperature goes above 70° F, showing an increase in body temperature and a decline in appetite and milk production as 75° F, is passed. Brahmans, on the other hand, show little effect from temperatures up to and beyond 105° F. Although heat tolerance is only one factor in environmental adaptation of cattle, it is considered the most important. These are some of the other factors that allow Brahmans to adapt to adverse conditions.
  • Hair Coat. The short, thick, glossy hair coat of the Brahman reflects much of the sun’s rays, adding to its ability to graze in the glaring midday sun without suffering.
  • Skin Pigmentation. The black pigmented skin of Brahmans keeps out the intense rays of the sun, which in excessive amounts will damage deeper tissue layers.
  • Loose Skin. An abundance of loose skin on the Brahman is thought to contribute to its ability to withstand warm weather by increasing the body surface area exposed to cooling.
  • Sweating Ability. Brahmans have sweat glands and the ability to sweat freely through the pores of the skin, which contributes materially to their heat tolerance.
  • Internal Body Heat. One factor contributing to the great heat tolerance of Brahmans, discovered in the Missouri studies, is that they produce less internal body heat in warm weather than do cattle of European breeds. Waste heat is produced from feed at the expense of growth and milk production.

Brahman cattle have been found to fill a unique place in American cattle production. The Brahman and cattle carrying percentages of Brahman breeding have been found extremely useful in the southern coastal area of the United States, where they have demonstrated their ability to withstand hot and humid weather and to resist insects. In more recent years Brahman cattle have spread considerably from their initial locations and are now found widely through the United States. They are also good mothers and produce a very satisfactory milk flow under conditions that are adverse for best performance of the European breeds. Cancer eye is almost unknown in the breed. They have established a considerable reputation for a high dressing percentage, and their carcasses have a very good “cutout” value with minimum of outside fat. (Breeds of Livestock – Oklahoma State)

The F1 cross (first generation removed from purebred breeds) that tops my list is the HerefordxBrahman. These cattle are usually brindle in color with a white face. They make great mothers, wean big calves, have great longevity, and cross well with other beef breeds. Oh, and they make for a great sight in the pasture. My family used to raise many of these cows. They can be the most gentle cows in the pasture, but also the ones that will clear a 6 foot fence with no problem. When I was in high school I bought two gray brahman pairs. They were very gentle and awesome to look at. But if they were even a little nervous in a tight spot, they’d just hop over the fence and trot on like nothing had happened.

Other common crosses with the Brahman include Charolais, Angus, and even Holsteins. You can learn more and connect with breeders in your area through the American Brahman Breeders Association.

What’s your favorite story about Brahman cattle?

To learn more about other cattle breeds, visit the Cattle Breeds 101 page.

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