10 of the Most Exceptional Cattle Breeds

From weird to cute, these are not ordinary-looking cows.

shaggy brown Highland cow licks nose out in field

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Cows were first domesticated approximately 10,000 years ago. Since then, humans have selectively bred them for specific qualities. Those qualities are often practical, but sometimes they are extraordinary. Here are some of the more visually amazing breeds of cattle from around the world.

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Texas Longhorn Cow

brown and white spotted texas longhorn cow in grass

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The Texas Longhorn Cow is descended from a mix between an Iberian breed and an Indian one. They were some of the first cattle brought to North America by Europeans. Appropriately named, the longhorn is known for its sizable headwear. These horns can grow as much as seven feet from tip to tip. But despite the intimidating horns, Texas longhorn cows are quite gentle and smart.

These cows take eight to ten years to reach full size, which is anywhere from 800 to 1500 pounds. Despite their slower maturation, they have a reproductive period that's twice as long as other breeds.

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Ankole-Watusi Cow

brown cows with large speared horns graze in a grassy field

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Not to be outdone on the subject of large horns, the Ankole-Watusi is a spectacular breed of cow native to Africa. It's believed they originated "over 2,000 years ago from a combination of the Egyptian Longhorn cattle and the Zebu Longhorns originally from India."

This breed's impressive horns can grow as long as eight feet from tip to tip. Proportionally, they look impossibly large, but they do have practical purposes: The large horns are used to disperse heat, as well as act as intimidating weapons to ward off predators. The cows are usually a dark red color, sometimes with white speckling.

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Highland Cow

shaggy-coated highland cow standing on small hill

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Moving from the heat of Africa to the cold of Scotland, we find another cow breed that has adapted to its environment. The highland cow has a thick, shaggy coat that keeps it warm and protected from wind and rain. As a bonus, the wavy coat also gives it an endearingly silly appearance. The highland cow has the longest hair of any breed of cattle.

Interestingly, Scottish breeders do not refer to a group of their cows as a herd, but rather a "fold." This is because "in the olden days in winter the cattle were brought together at night in open shelters made of stone called folds to protect them from the weather and wolves."

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Belgian Blue Cow

white belgian blue cow walking in field

 Bombaert / Getty Images

Winning the trophy for one of the most bizarre-looking outcomes of experimentation with beef cattle breeding is the Belgian blue. The strangely lumpy appearance is called double-muscling—a genetic trait that creates an increased number of muscle fibers. It results in about 20% more muscle than the average cow and extra-lean meat. This interesting condition was first noted in 1808, and since then, the breed has been selected specifically because of its effects.

These animals can grow to be enormous. It's not uncommon to see a Belgian blue bull that weighs over 2,800 pounds (1300 kg). Females can reach close to 2,000 pounds (900 kg).

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Zebu Cow

profile of lumpy bumpy brown and white zebu cow

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Lumpy and bumpy in a different way is the zebu cow. Zebus are a type of cattle originating from South Asia. They have been developed into more specific breeds (more on one of those soon), but the umbrella breed is the Bos indicus. This breed is easily identified by the prominent hump on its shoulders (which would have been bred by selection from non-humped cattle), as well as the dewlap—the baggy skin hanging from its neck. The profile of the zebu cow is unmistakable.

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American Brahman Cow

black and white brahman bull cow walking in grass

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The American Brahman cow is one specific breed of zebu that was developed in the United States from zebu cattle imported from India and Brazil, so it has the characteristic shoulder hump and prominent dewlap, but is colored either red or gray. These cows also have unique qualities of their own though, particularly their unusually long ears that give them a goat-like appearance. The breed is known for its capacity to withstand heat, an ability that can be attributed to its thick hair and abundance of loose skin.

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Dexter Cow

stocky tan short Dexter cow is shown at county fair

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Just as there are miniature horses, there are miniature cows. The Dexter cow, originally from Ireland, is one of those breeds. These tiny cows stand only about three to four feet tall at the shoulder, making them great for small farms in all climates. The Canadian Dexter Cattle Association says the breed is "known for its hardiness, docility, thriftiness and calving ease."

Dexter cows raised for dairy provide one to two gallons of milk per day (as opposed to eight to 10 gallons from a typical Holstein dairy cow). If you're raising one for meat, you would get about 400 pounds of meat (compared to twice that from an average-sized steer). These qualities make them more manageable for a family farm. Plus, they're cute, which is always a bonus.

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Miniature Belted Galloway Cow

belted galloway cows grazing in grass

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Another adorable and unusual cattle breed is the mini belted Galloway, or mini beltie. These little cows sport a black coat with a belt of white around their middle. Their coat is also quite thick, which is a result of where the breed was developed: the highlands of Scotland. The mini belted Galloway is not nearly as shaggy as the highland cow, but because they naturally don't have horns, they look all the more cuddly. They're primarily raised for their delicious marbled meat, though many farmers appreciate their unusual appearance in the pasture, earning them the nickname of "Oreo cows."

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Miniature Jersey Cow

miniature jersey cows standing near red stockade fencing

Katie Newman / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Jersey cows are common enough, but what about miniature Jerseys? These cows stand a mere three to 3.5 feet tall at the shoulder. Like the other smaller breeds, they were developed to be more manageable for small farms that don't need as much milk or meat or don't want to invest as much space or feed into livestock. They were developed by crossing standard Jerseys with Dexters or other miniature cattle. They are gentle, docile, and mild-mannered—unlike their standard counterparts, which are known to be high-strung and aggressive.

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Panda Cow

two black and white panda cows smell each other in pen

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And finally, we have a particularly rare cow. The miniature panda cow is known for its markings that are just like those of giant pandas, right down to the dark eye patches. In fact, if it doesn't have the correct markings—a white belt around the middle and distinct black eye patches on a white face—it doesn't count as a panda cow.

There are only a handful of these cute cows in the world: in 2013, one breeder estimated there were only 30 to 40. They're so rare that when one is born, it usually makes the news, like this adorable calf named Ben whose unusual markings make him worth an estimated $30,000. If you want to see them for yourself, there is a pair of panda cows at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington.

View Article Sources
  1. "Texas Longhorn." The Cattle Site.

  2. "Ankole-Watusi Cattle." The Livestock Conservancy.

  3. "Highland." The Cattle Site.

  4. "Belgian Blue." The Cattle Site.

  5. James O. Sanders, "History and Development of Zebu Cattle in the United States." Journal of Animal Science, vol. 50, no. 6, June 1980, pp. 1188–1200. doi:10.2527/jas1980.5061188x

  6. "About the Breed," Canadian Dexter Cattle Association.

  7. "About Mini Belties," Killure Mini Belted Stud.

  8. "About the Breed," Canadian Miniature Jersey Association.