By Kent Hanawalt

Cows come in many colors—red or yellow, black or white, brown, grey, and even blue. (I’ll explain the blue a little later.) Why so many colors?

Each of dozens of cattle breeds represents subtle differences in characteristics that adapt them to different purposes, landscapes, and management strategies (just like dogs, cats, and horses). Some have long hair, some have horns, some are tall, and some are short. Milk cows are usually rather thin-looking, with big udders. Cattle raised for beef are more heavily-muscled and give only enough milk to nourish one calf. Most of these different breeds are distinguishable by color.

Texas Longhorns are descended from the first cattle introduced to the New World, brought by explorer Christopher Columbus and the Spanish colonists. These cattle were well-suited to the heat and wild conditions of Texas, but had more in the way of hooves, horns, and skeleton than they had meat. They have been replaced over most of the U.S. with cattle bred up from European stock imported in the late 1800s.

Herefords—with their white faces and red bodies—were once Kings of the West. Hereford, Angus, and Shorthorn are classified as the “British Breeds” that were predominant in the mid-20th Century in Montana. The “Continental Breeds”—mostly Charolaise, Simmental, and Limousin—were heavily used in the latter part of the 20th Century.

The dominant breed in Montana is now Black Angus. Also common are Red Angus. Charolaise are white, and generally larger and meatier than the Angus. When crossed with either strain of Angus, they make an excellent feeder calf.

And now to the Blue. Shorthorn cattle were once quite common in Montana. They are generally dark red or red roan: mixed red and white hairs. When crossed with Black Angus, they often came out as blue roans: mixed black and white hairs.