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Pineywoods Cattle Registry & Breeders Association

Pineywoods Cattle Strains

"Pineywoods cattle are a landrace breed.  The important key here is the adaptation and environmental resistance of Pineywoods cattle as major definers of the breed."

Pineywoods Cattle Strains

D. P. Sponenberg

Pineywoods cattle are a landrace breed, which means that the breed formed under local conditions for local purposes – usually with a great deal of isolation. The result of the isolation of different groups of these cattle makes the cattle within the breed reasonably variable, and that can make defining the breed difficult. One starting point for a definition is that the Pineywoods cattle have an origin in Spanish cattle, and a long history of selection and adaptation in the Gulf Coast region of the USA. The important key here is the adaptation and environmental resistance of Pineywoods cattle as major definers of the breed. It is appropriate to include within the breed any cattle of long-term residence in the region, reasonably free of recent incursions of outside breeding (last 100 years, ideally), humpless (no Brahman influence), and well adapted. This is a “short” definition of this important landrace breed. Longer definitions are possible, but this definition includes the core of the breed and its heritage.

One real strength of landraces is the moderate variability that they have. This variability reflects their genetic breadth and strength, and contributes to their adaptation. It is important to remember that this idea that a breed can have reasonable variation is not the usual model for breeds in the USA. Most breeds in the USA are standardized breeds, with a prescriptive breed standard that dictates what is ideal. Breeders then select towards that standard, usually producing productive and useful cattle along the way. A key point, though, is that in the process of selecting for a single ideal, much variation is lost, and with it can go adaptive traits and genetic strength. A trivial example is color – it would be easy to make all Pineywoods cattle red and white, but the breed would lose many interesting and historically accurate colors in the process.

To some extent, any breed can be imagined to be a building. At one extreme are industrial breeds like the Holstein and industrial poultry breeds. The population structure of these breeds is somewhat like a tall skyscraper, with the narrow genetic base supporting a tall (but narrow) population above it. Most other standardized breeds are like a multistory office building. The base is somewhat broader in relation to the height, but still supports a relatively tall population. The other extreme are the landraces, which are like a low, rambling ranch house. The base is broad in relationship to the height, and this implies stability. Within this low house the strains can each be imagined as rooms in the house. Some rooms interconnect, just as some strains have exchanged breeding animals in the past. Other strains are more isolated, but all strains serve to give the overall house its structure and help in its function.

A key here is that the broader, lower form of genetic organization of landraces, such as the Pineywoods cattle breed, is fairly resistant to damaging effects of changes in the environment. Imagine the three different types of “breed structure buildings” in an earthquake, or major shift in production system. The lower, broader, more variable organization is likely to persist more than is the tall, narrow skyscraper. This is a compelling reason for breed conservation – and also for strain conservation within breeds.

The strains of the Pineywoods cattle breed provide genetic breadth to the breed. The genetic breadth, in turn, makes it such an ideal breed for resistance and adaptation. This breadth is always in risk of diminishing, and this is especially true as communication among breeders increases. As communication increases and breeders start comparing animals across strains, some will be deemed to be “better” or “more ideal” than others, and are likely to be used across strains. The result of this is to collapse the breed into fewer and fewer genetically unique strains.

The collapse of strains of a landrace can easily be seen in part of the Texas Longhorn breed. Originally the Texas Longhorn had seven or eight major founding strains (the number depends on who does the counting). As breeders got together and swapped breeding stock around, it became more and more usual for selection to favor large, smooth, speckled, very long horned cattle. As a result of this selection the majority of the breed now centers around a composite of only three of the founding strains, with very minor input from the other strains. The resulting breed is easily identifiable, but has lost some of the interesting types and variants that once characterized some of the strains. Fortunately a group of conservation-minded breeders has organized an effort to save the more traditional Texas Longhorn type, but this effort is still occurring after the loss of some of the founding strains of the main breed.

The temptation to select all Pineywoods cattle in the diretion of a single popular strain should be avoided in all landraces, but especially in Pineywoods cattle. For example, if all dairy cattle become Holsteins, then the unique attributes and genetic strengths of the other dairy breeds become unavailable to future generations. If all beef cattle become Angus, then the unique attributes and genetic strengths of the other beef breeds become unavailable for future geneations. In a similar vein, if all Pineywoods cattle became Conway type cattle (or any other single strain), then the unique attributes and genetic strengths of the Hickman strain (or whatever other strain) become unavailable for future generations. The breed needs all of the strains that it now has, and each should have a role in the breed’s future.

The breeders of Pineywoods cattle need to try to save all of the strains and variations that they can. These components can then be safely combined into different composites among the strains that meet specific production goals. However, by failing to save the component strains, it then becomes impossible to go back into them and resample them for future production goals. What remains, and how to rescue and conserve it, are topics for the next articles.