Ancient White Park Cattle: Old Breed, New Babies!

Wait a second, you thought Seed Savers Exchange was only saving seeds? When you visit Heritage Farm at Seed Savers Exchange, the cutest thing you’ll see may also be the oldest thing we preserve. The ancestors of our herds of Ancient White Park cattle date back to the pre-Christian era where they roamed the British isles, and descriptions of their distinct white coats and U-shaped horns crop up periodically in historical documents. Their island-based origin isolated this breed from other breeds, therefore making them much more genetically distinct and valuable. But how did they get to Seed Savers Exchange, you ask? Well, it’s kind of a complicated story.

Corey makes a new friend.

Facilities crew member Corey Cordell transports a young calf to a new pasture.

The breed of Ancient White Park cattle we preserve came to North America from England during World War II for safekeeping from the threat of a Nazi invasion. A few cattle were sent to the Toronto Zoo, and the calves born there were moved to the Bronx Zoo. But lack of space dictated that they be moved to the King Ranch in Texas. From Texas they were moved to Polk City, Iowa and finally here to Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa in 1988.

Since settling here, the Ancient White Park herds have contributed to the breed being upgraded by the Livestock Conservancy from ‘critical’ to ‘threatened’ in 2012. They were also the inspiration behind a set of paintings done by artist Valerie Miller of Steel Cow Studios in Waukon, IA. Two of the cattle born this month, one from each of our two herds, are pictured here.

2031 B

Say hello to 2031 B!

The farm currently has over eighty animals across two herds: A and B. They are separated into two distinct groups to maintain genetic diversity and to better document lineages and desirable traits. Rather than breeding the cattle with the intention of producing larger animals that bring more money at market, our goal is to breed them to maintain their distinct coloring with black around their eyes, ears, noses, and hooves. Still, the cows can range in size from 1000-1200lbs when mature, and the bulls between 1500-1800lbs. Some cows are born with the recessive black-coat trait, while others have a white coat with more of a reddish coloring around the eyes, ears, noses, and hooves.

This spring, the Seed Savers Exchange family expects about twenty new additions to each herd. To learn more about this amazing, ancient breed, visit the Livestock Conservancy’s website or B Bar Ranch’s website. Feel free to stop by Seed Savers Exchange where you can go on a tour of our grounds and see these beautiful animals up close (but be careful, the moms and dads can be protective of their little ones). Or check out this video to see the cattle in action!

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Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization located in Decorah, Iowa, with a mission to conserve and promote America’s culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.

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  1. Greg Oliver says:

    Seed Savers,
    I was just curious what you do with the beef?
    Thanks, Greg O.

    • Steve Carlson, Seed Savers Exchange says:

      Hi Greg,
      We sell cows and bulls mainly for breeding purposes, and not for beef (Although they are known for their well-marbled meat).

  2. Savannagal says:

    Do all the cows grow horns, or only the bulls? I’ve always thought only bulls grow horns. They certainly are beautiful animals.

    • Steve Carlson, Seed Savers Exchange says:

      For the Ancient White Park breed, both the cows and bulls grow horns.

  3. It would be very expensive to bring more animals over to increase your genetic pool. Is it possible to bring over sperm instead? I know it is common now-a-days to do artificial insemination with breeds like this.

    • Steve Carlson, Seed Savers Exchange says:

      Hi Delia,
      We don’t currently do any artificial insemination with our breeding strategies. When we set up our breeding program we were advised by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, which includes breeding between our two separate herds and occasionally working with a herd at B Bar Ranch in Montana to get a bull from their herd.

  4. To Steve Carlson regarding his reply to Greg on beef sales…are you saying that almost every one, if not all, of the calves born in your herds meet the breed standard and are of a quality worthy of breeding?

    • Steve Carlson, Seed Savers Exchange says:

      Hi Herb,
      No, your skepticism is correct and not all of our calves meet our breeding standards. We breed mostly with coloration in mind, and we do get calves that are over-marked or under-marked. At this point in time the calves we don’t intend to breed do go to local producers for beef production.

  5. Do you know of the milk from this breed is A1 or A2?

  6. Is breeding for color really the best thing to do in order to provide for the future viability of the herd? I suspect I am outnumbered on this, but I don’t think the future of heirloom breeds should depend on anything other than their vitality and specifics such as forage ability.

    That said, the white does look good :)

    • Steve Carlson, Seed Savers Exchange says:

      Hi Mike,
      There are certain characteristics that identify a group of animals as a breed, and if the animals do not have those characteristics they no longer considered representatives of that breed. Therefore, the coloration is important to retain. You’re right, though, and there are other characteristics that are important to preserve (for the AWP this would be easy calving and forage ability). With our breeding records it is easy to cull cows that produce black calves, but there are other valuable genetic traits that may be linked to the black coloration, so we also retain those cows. We worked with the Livestock Conservancy to create our breeding program and still refer to them as the experts. You can read some more on their website: