THE HISTORY AND EVOLUTION OF BRAHMANS AND ZEBUS
Presentation by Dr George Jacobs to the NSW Branch of ABBA's Field Day at Grafton Saleyards - 5 March 2000
If I were to ask most of you what is the most distinctive feature of Brahman cattle, I would guess 90% of you would say "the hump". As far back as 1752 at the Paris Agricultural Fair the name Zebu was officially adopted to describe all breeds of Bos Indicus. The name Zebu was taken from the Tibetan word Zen or Zeba which means "the hump of the camel". The word Zebu, therefore, has been used world-wide for the last 250 years to identify bos indicus cattle.
Cattle were apparently first domesticated nearly 10,000 years ago somewhere in the Middle East. These animals were not humped. However by about 3,000 BC cervico-thoracic humped cattle were known to have existed in both Mesopotamia and the region now know as Pakistan. This was achieved by selection from non-humped cattle by their human masters, in the centuries prior to 3,000 BC in either south or southwest Asia. This selection process took place to obtain the best cattle for use as beasts of burden and as oxen to pull ploughs. The hump prevented goods falling off and the plough from rolling backwards.
Humped cattle can be classified on the basis of location of the hump as thoracic
humped (shoulder humped) or cervico-thoracic humped (neck humped). Most Zebu
cattle imported into Australia have been thoracic-humped. Bulls tend to have
larger humps than females and steers.
This is similar to the presence of crests on bulls of non-humped breeds and absence of crests on females and steers of those breeds. There appears to be reduced fertility in females with very large humps compared to other females of the same breed.
The tropical adaptation of Zebu cattle was almost certainly developed by natural selection in tropical areas. The extent to which this adaptation was achieved concurrent to the divergence of the humped from non-humped cattle can only be speculated. But it must be remembered that not all tropically adapted cattle are humped, especially in Africa and in some parts of Asia. However, the greatest concentration of humped cattle is found on the Indian subcontinent.
The name "Brahman" was adopted in 1924 for the new bos indicus breed developed by American cattlemen who required an alternative to European type cattle for the difficult environment conditions along the Texas gulf coast, similar to the sub-tropical and tropical regions along Australia's coastline. The term Zebu is used universally for humped cattle, and Brahmans are considered a breed of Zebu.
The American Brahman was the source of virtually all importations of Zebu cattle
into Australia until March 1982. The breed was developed by crossing three strains
of Indian Zebu cattle. These three strains were the Guzerat, Nellore and Gyr,
which were imported from both India and Brazil, mainly between the years 1900
In fact, most were Brazilian imports in the 1920's which were descendants of Indian cattle sent in large numbers to Brazil between 1890 and 1921. Two animals of the Guzerat breed imported into Australia in 1933 by CSIR were direct descendants of cattle imported to the USA from Brazil.
Similar to American cattlemen, Brazilian cattlemen felt the need to breed their own distinctive type of Zebu, and in the 1920's they developed the Indu-Brazil, a combination of Guzerat and Gyr strains. Some of these were amongst the exports to the USA.
The most important importations into the USA for Australian breeders during
those times were the 1924 and 1925 importations comprising 120 bulls and 18
heifers. All the heifers were full-blood Guzerat and seven were in calf to a
Gyr bull. Most of the bulls were also Guzerat, but Nellore, Gyr-Guzerat and
Indu-Brazil bulls were also included. Two bulls of this importation "Imperator"
and "Aristocrata" had an enormous influence on the development of
the American Grey Brahman. "Aristocrata" sired "Manso".
He was sold as a yearling to a Mrs Gayle of Francitas, Texas. She used Manso
on commercial cows until his daughters were ready to breed. She then asked Walter
Hudgins to trade a bull of different bloodlines for Manso. Hudgins was not interested
in trading but after a years delay, Gayle persuaded him to take a look at the
bull. After seeing him, Hudgins traded four young bulls for Manso. Manso was
first used by Hudgins in the Autumn of 1933. In 10 years of service, he sired
Sixty two of his sons were used as sires by Hudgins and most of the 171 daughters were kept as replacements. In an advertisement in January 1948 it was claimed that of 70,000 cattle registered by the American Brahman Breeders Association (ABBA) from 1924-1948, 12,000 were registered by the Hudgins ranch. Edgar Hudgins in 1977 claimed that three quarters of Grey Brahmans registered by the ABBA traced back to Manso.
It is worth noting that Nellore bulls were used on the Hudgins ranch until the 1924/25 importations were introduced, predominantly Guzerat. It was during this time in 1924 that the American Brahman Breeders Association was formed.
Nineteen head of cattle of the Brahman breed were first imported into Australia
in 1933 by the CSIR, the forerunner of the CSIRO. There were other importations
in the early 1950's of Brahman cattle, until all importations were ceased in
1954, due to quarantine concerns. Only a total of 49 beasts were imported. Semen
of 6-10 bulls, some of which were Brahman and some Indu-Brazil/Red Brahman type,
was then imported in 1975 and 1976 by the McCamley family and me. That importation
brought the benefits of the 1946 importations to the USA of 18 Brazilian bulls.
These were Indu-Brazil and Indu-Brazil-Gyr mixtures. They were often bred to
American Brahman cows, which were predominantly Guzerat. The American Red Brahman
was predominantly derived from these cattle.
The subsequent importations into Australia had a huge impact on our Australian Red Brahmans. Rio Negro and Arauto had the greatest influence.
As I have mentioned previously, The Zebu's hump was a device developed by humans for their own convenience. Most other characteristics of Zebu cattle are a result of their own natural selection in tropical environments. The black skin is to repel the sun's rays and prevent skin damage. The long, agile ears are used to flick insects away from the face and eyes. The Zebu tail is also distinctly different from that of European cattle.
In contrast to the large, thick and very short tail of its European counterparts, the Zebu has a wide, long, very mobile tail used for defence and protection from parasites. The Zebu uses its tail with a long switch like a rapid whip, full of energy to swat away flying insects and parasites that attack its hide. In order to protect themselves from ticks, zebus give off a strong repelling odour having the scent of rancid peanuts. This odour is the result of a secretion which comes from the tail. The switch at the end of the tail is used to spread these secretions over its body.
The three original strains of Indian cattle used to develop the Brahman breed
are still the basis of most Zebu breeding for beef production around the world
and I thought I should give you a short summary of their characteristics:
The Guzerat is the traditional work beast of ancient civilisations. It is a large beast with heavy bone and frame with the conformation giving the appearance of great physical strength. The horns are large and heavy, curving up into the ear. The head is large and flat, the ear is large, pendulous and open. The hide is very loose and pliable and is exceptionally thick. The hair coat is short and slick. Colour varies from steel grey through to black. Newly born calves have rusty red-coloured polls. This colour disappears within 6 to 9 months. The mucous membrane and skin are pigmented black throughout. The topline of the Guzerat should be horizontal from the base of the horn to the tailhead, interrupted only by the hump. The hump should be distinctive, kidney-shaped, strong and erect, slightly dished out on each side. The neck folds are numerous and extend backward across the shoulder, back and side. Their forequarters, hump and hindquarters are darker than the barrel, especially in males, and the switch of the tail is black.
The Nellore are large with more tightly knit frames and fleshy dewlaps. Their bodies are long with short necks, limbs are thin but muscular. Eyes are elliptical with black rings. Ears are moderately long and drooping. Horns are short and stumpy with a thick base. In some animals the horns are loose. Bulls have well developed humps that are erect and filled up on both sides. Skin is of medium thickness, elastic and often shows black mottled markings.
White is the most popular colour with bulls having dark grey markings on the head, neck and hump and sometimes black points on the knees, hocks and pasterns.
The Gyr has a distinctive red or spotted coat to distinguish it instantly from the other types. It also has a broad and prominent forehead giving a hooded appearance to their eyes. Ears are long, slim and pendulous. Horns are curved backwards and downwards, similar to water-buffalo. The hump is very large and well-defined and sits squarely on top of the shoulders. The Gyr is considered the most docile of all Zebus having a very gentle disposition. In general, the Gyr is smaller than the Guzerat and the Nellore but its conformation is very smooth and thick, with full and round hindquarters giving it a beefy appearance. Mucous membranes, skin and switch are all black. Very well developed, full and large udders with medium sized teats make the females excellent milk-producers.
Finally, a little local history, the Australian Brahman Breeders Association
was formed in 1946. Progress was slow. By 1959 there were only 14 registered
studs. However in the 1960's as people became acquainted with the virtues of
Brahman cattle, the Association expanded rapidly.
The beef recession of the 1970's had a huge impact on all breeds. However, as the production of beef has been redirected to tropical and sub-tropical regions of Australia from the 1980's, the percentage of cattle in Australia that are pure bred Brahman or are Brahman-cross, has moved above 50% and is continuing to increase. Exports of live cattle and beef are dominated by Brahmans. As a result, the ABBA is now the largest beef breed Association in Australia.
Australian Brahmans are derived from the importations I have described previously. They have been further developed by continuing importations and the skills of Australian cattlemen. The benefits have been demonstrated by being able to develop huge export markets in our region for live cattle for both breeding and feedlot animals. Our cattle are evolving and improving with the use of modern breeding methods, such as Breedplan and ever-advancing reproductive technologies.
Despite having listened to me for so long, I am sure many of you still have one burning question. I've told you the purpose of the Zebu's ears, tail and black skin but the question "what's in the hump" remains to be answered. Well, I'm pleased to tell you that it is a large slab of well marbled meat and in some South American countries it is cooked as a delicate dish for special occasions.
Maybe some of you will have the pleasure one day of tasting it.