Mashona Cattle - Breeding Beef Cattle Adapted to their Environment
by Heather Smith Thomas

Hot climates, whether arid or humid, require a different type of cattle than cold northern climates.  To do well, cattle must be well adapted to their environment.  Jim Elizondo (who now manages a large ranch in Florida) has been seeking to create the most efficient genetics for beef cattle in a hot environment.

Growing up in Mexico, Elizondo has two very successful ranches there.  “I have been with cattle all my life,” he says.  “My grandfather and father were both cattlemen, in Tampico, on the Mexican Gulf Coast—about a 6-hour drive south of Brownville, Texas.  This area is located in the dry tropics.”

He has always tried to read and learn from the best teachers.  “All my life I have tried to find the best books on cattle raising and land management to improve my abilities.  I bought my first ranch in 1990.  It is irrigated and I started growing stockers.  I had a small feedlot where I finished them.  I had about 700 animals per year on 300 acres,” he says.

 “My uncle developed the first composite breed in Mexico, called Tropicarne which in Spanish means tropical beef.  This composite was built with Barzona, Charolais, Senepol, Brahman and Angus, over many years, with most emphasis on Senepol,” says Elizondo.

For many years Elizondo also had a dairy, using Jersey cows, but soon had to change from pure Jersey because they don’t do well in the tropics.  “In that area we have piroplasmosis from ticks.  Pure Bos Taurus cows are more affected by various pests.  In making a change, first I used Australian Friesian Sahiwal semen for 15 years, then I switched to Girolando (a Brazilian composite with Holstein and Gyr) after I met Johann Zietsman, from Zimbabwe.  He teaches courses in sustainable ranching and advised me to look for the correct type of Girolando—that has not been affected by the hype of taller and higher-producing individuals which does not translate to higher sustainable profits per acre,” explains Elizondo.

“In 1994 I used some tropical milking criollo bulls.  This is a Bos Taurus breed adapted to high temperatures and tick problems after 500 years of natural selection.  Sixteen years later I realized that my best cows were descendants from those bulls.  So after 15 years of Australian Friesian Sahiwal and 2 years of Girolando I went back to the tropical milking criollo breed and now have the largest herd of animals composed of that cross in Mexico.  I discovered that these cows originally came from Africa, to Spain, to the Americas 500 years ago.”

Tropical milking criollo animals were first selected by nature and possess the short slick hair gene which conveys a high degree of heat tolerance.  “This is important, to be able to produce under high temperatures and high humidity because these environmental conditions also mean low-quality high-fiber forages.  It is this high fiber which inhibits forage consumption when temperatures are high as the fiber digestion produces a lot of heat.  The animal cannot cope with the heat from the outside and the heat from the rumen--so a non-adapted animal will reduce consumption and thus produce less.  This would be called nutritional adaptation,” says Elizondo.

In 2010 he and his family had to leave Mexico because of the violence in that region.  “In 2012 I started working at this ranch in Florida where the owners wanted to rehabilitate 550 acres that had once been a tree nursery.  They came to me first as a consultant and asked which breed of beef cattle would I recommend for grazing their land,” says Elizondo.

Before he came to the U.S he had been trying to bring some Mashona cattle into Mexico, from Jim Weaver in New Mexico.  Weaver brought the first ones as embryos in 1995 from Zimbabwe.  “These are very hardy cattle, being heat, disease and parasite resistant, but most importantly they have nutritional adaptation.  They are Bos Taurus Sanga breed and have very high fertility with early marbling and early maturity.  When I was asked by the Florida rancher which breed I would recommend, Jim Weaver was selling the whole herd--so this ranch purchased almost all the cows.  Now we have them here, and are trying to grow the herd and maintain them pure,” he says.

“We want to keep these cattle pure, as a genetic resource for other ranchers.  This is the largest herd outside of Africa.  We started with 163 cows and 10 bulls and now we have more than 500 animals.  We have been selling some of the bulls,” says Elizondo.

“Our ranch is located in part of a unique area in the U.S. that is more tropical than what people call the Southeast.  This part of southeastern Florida (and southeastern Texas) is very different.  We are at the same latitude as Houston, Texas.  It is a different environment.”


MASHONA CATTLE – “A booklet about these cattle was published by the Mashona Zimbabwe Society.  This breed has over 1000 years of history.  Originally they were mainly Bos Taurus that came from Egypt, descended from the African Auroch which is different from the European Auroch or the Indian Auroch (the Auroch was the ancestor of cattle).  About 300 or 400 years ago there was an epidemic of Rinderpest in Zimbabwe and most of the cattle died.  They had to bring in some Bos Indicus cattle that were more resistant.  The Bos Indicus in Africa is very different from the Bos Indicus in India,” says Elizondo.

“For hundreds of years, African people raised these cattle for meat.  A cow that was not a good meat animal was not selected for breeding.  If a cow was aggressive, or escaped the enclosure, it would be eaten by lions and hyena.”  This “natural selection” weeded out the problem animals. 

“In India the cattle were revered and not killed for meat.  If a cow had a bad temper they left her alone and she could do whatever she wanted,” explains Elizondo.  Thus bad temperament was perpetuated in some of the Indian Bos Indicus, whereas the African cattle that survived were docile.

 “Another big problem with Indian cattle--which I discovered in my ranching experience in Mexico--is that there is an aberrant chromosome in the Bos Indicus (from India) that affects fertility when crossed with Bos Taurus.  This occurs in subsequent crosses, not on the first one.  The first cross is very good.  After 15 years of breeding my herd with Australian Friesian Sahiwal (a composite with Bos Indicus genes), I watched their fertility going down from 93% pregnancy rate to 74%.  I researched this and discovered the reason.  It appears that the African Zebu doesn’t have that problem,” says Elizondo.  The Mashona has been genetically evaluated (genetic sequencing) and was found to be about 8 to 12% Bos Indicus genes and the rest is Bos Taurus.

 “After hundreds of years of breeding in relatively closed herds, tests at the research station at Matopos in Zimbabwe (and in another research station in Namibia with a breed similar to Mashona from Zimbabwe) these cattle were first place in productivity of pounds of weaned calves per acre, out of all the other breeds,” he says.

 “They are also the nicest and gentlest of all the breeds that I have ever handled.  They have an affinity with humans.  The Mashona cattle have a very long history of being handled by people.  The ones that jumped the corral fences, where they are kept at night in Africa, got eaten by predators and their genetics were not perpetuated.”

The Mashona is very long-lived.  “The original ones in this herd were imported as embryos in 1995, and we have many cows here that are 17 years old.  I think the best use for the Mashona is to use them as part of a composite.  They should be at least a quarter of the composite, to increase relative intake, for areas where climate is not hot and humid.  In regions that are hot and humid you would probably need the animals to be about half Mashona or other African breeds, to improve feed efficiency.  These animals had to be able to eat fast, and a lot.”  They lived in kraals in Africa (enclosures to keep out lions and other predators) and were taken out to graze during the day, with herders.

They might only be allowed 5 to 6 hours of grazing before being brought back to the safety of the kraal before evening.  “In a drought, they had to walk farther and farther away to get to some grass, and come back fast.  The ones that didn’t eat fast enough to consume enough food would not have enough nutrition to reproduce and fell out of the gene pool.  This concentrated the genetics that were able to eat more, to keep some weight,” says Elizondo.

“So now we have these genetic resources.  We need animals that can graze non-selectively, with minimum inputs.  When you graze non-selectively, the forage species composition improves,” he explains.  When cattle graze selectively, by contrast, desirable species decline and undesirable species increase.

“To graze non-selectively and have good results, you need animals that are capable of higher relative intake (pounds of dry matter forage ingested per 100 pounds of live weight).  They need to be able to eat the whole plant (and not just the most nutritious part) without reducing animal performance,” he says. 

Today, most beef animals require better nutrition in order to perform.  Even with most kinds of rotational grazing, cattle eat their favorite plants (or the most edible plant portions, or just the tops of the plants) and then move on.

 “A rancher in Chihuahua, Mexico, Bill Finnan, recognized the need for an animal that could graze non-selectively.  He bred a herd of Herefords, with that goal in mind.  Today, that herd is superb.  His grandson has them now.  Those animals look different from the typical beef cattle of today.  They are shorter at the hip, but wider and thicker bodied, and very efficient.  The higher the relative intake (with the same size animal), the better the feed efficiency, because less of the intake goes to maintenance and more goes into production,” Elizondo explains.