What are Cracker Cattle?

Description | History | Preservation | Registration of Florida Cracker Cattle

Description

The generally low level of nutrition provided by the unimproved range and unfertilized pastures, along with the rough woods, "the scrub", in which these cattle spent most of their time, likely also had an effect on the horn size and shape of Florida Cracker Cattle. The horns of Florida Cracker Cattle have a much greater tendency to go up rather than out like those of Texas Longhorn cattle. This tendency to go up often observed in photographs of Florida Cracker Cattle from the 1930's and prior, likely benefited the cattle as they ran through the scrub as the brush and low lying limbs of trees would have made it difficult for a beast with wide horns to maneuver through. Some of the horns of the oldest Florida Cracker cows that are the most distinctive of the breed rise up quickly without going out far and then turn backwards at their ends, sort of in lyre fashion. The horns of Florida Cracker Cattle should not be wide at their bases as this is indicative of "outside breeding", in particular Brahman influences. Additional information regarding the history and characteristics of Florida Cracker Cattle are discussed by Dr. Tim Olson in his presentation at a forestry field day October 23, 2008 in Laurel Hill, Florida.

The mature size of Florida Cracker cattle varies from very small animals, often referred as "guinea" cattle, that might not weigh more than 500 pounds at maturity to cows comparable to "average-sized" commercial beef cows, that is, from 950 to 1000 pounds. Florida Cracker cows of these sizes are more likely to be seen in cattle descending from Cracker cattle that were selected for larger size and a more "beef-type" conformation in the more northern areas in which these cattle were maintained. These include cattle that might also have been referred to as "Piney Woods" Cattle in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. One such herd of these cattle was maintained for many years by the Barnes family of Florala, Alabama, just across the line from northwest Florida.

Colorations/spotting patterns of Florida Cracker Cattle are quite varied and resemble those of the Texas Longhorn. It is likely that the majority of Florida Cracker Cattle of yesteryear were solid, solid red, solid black or solid brown with a few brindles. There would have been some spotted animals, some "linebacks" somewhat similar to the spotting of Pinzgauer cattle, and a few spotted like Holsteins or Guernseys, maybe the descendants of crosses of Cracker bulls and the family milk cows that early colonists brought with them from Georgia and the Carolinas. Another spotting pattern that would have been seen in the past and still exists today is called "color-sided" by geneticists but might be more commonly recognized by the name, frosty linebacks. Animals with this type of spotting can be differentiated by their sprinkling of white, roaning or dappling, on their faces which is absent on cattle with the previous type of lineback spotting pattern. Animals with extensive speckles and spots as well as roan and nearly white animals (usually with pigmented ears) are sometimes seen and are acceptable colorations.

Breed History

Florida Cracker Cattle descend from cattle first brought to Florida in the 1500's by the Spanish. More historical information on the history of cattle in Florida can be found on the website of the Florida Cattlemen's Association. Thus, they are relatives of the Texas Longhorn cattle and what are generally referred to as criollo cattle in various parts of Latin America. Some of the criollo cattle breeds still in existence today include the Romosinuano of Colombia and the Criollo Rio Limon of Venezuela but many other criollo breeds still exist in small numbers throughout Central and South America. It is unlikely, however, that cattle that descend only from these Spanish ancestors still exist in Florida. Cattle of non-Spanish origin have been entering Florida since at least the 1830's and there are documented reports of imports of Shorthorn cattle into Florida as early as the 1870's. The University of Florida Animal Science Department was doing crossbreeding studies between Florida Cracker Cattle and Shorthorns early in the 1900's.

While Shorthorn, and later Hereford and Angus, bulls would have been crossed with Florida Cracker cows in many parts of Florida, they did not have a major role in the demise of the breed as the use of Brahman bulls. While Shorthorn, Angus and Hereford bulls could sire some calves from Florida Cracker cows, they were not as adapted to Florida conditions as the Florida Cracker bulls and so many Florida Cracker calves "uncontaminated with improved breeding" would have continued to be born until the era of the Brahman. Starting in the 1930's, Brahman and Brahman crossbred bulls began to be used and were at least as adapted as the Florida Cracker bulls, and were larger and sired larger progeny. Also, the first cross of the Brahman bull on a Florida Cracker cow made a wonderful "mama cow". Many of such cows were produced and when later bred to Hereford and Angus bulls produced progeny that made excellent beef animals. As a result of the use of Brahman bulls and the elimination of Florida Cracker bulls due to their small size and perceived lack of muscularity, by the 1960's few "pure" Florida Cracker cows were left.

There was little effort by cattlemen over the history of Florida Cracker Cattle to improve them. Pretty much the situation was survival of the fittest. It is likely that the wildest of the bulls escaped capture and castration and, thus, were more likely to produce progeny. Certainly the general lack of nutrition available to them in the winter months had an impact on their size. Only small cattle with low maintenance requirements were likely to thrive under such conditions as supplemental feed during the winter would not have been provided to the historical Florida Cracker Cow.

Preservation

The efforts to preserve the remaining Florida Cracker Cattle in an official manner date back to the 1970's when then Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Doyle Conner put out the word that it was an important endeavor to save Florida Cracker Cattle from extinction and asked for contributions of Florida Cracker Cattle to start a state-owned herd of them. The family of James Durrance of Fort Bassinger (near Okeechobee) contributed five heifers and a bull to start the Department of Agriculture Florida Cracker Cattle herd in Tallahassee. The Florida Park Service obtained cattle from Zeb Durrance (James' son) and from the Chaires family of Dixie County to start the herds at the Lake Kissimmee State Park and Payne's Prairie. Some cattle from the Woody Tilton family of East Palatka also were added to the Payne's Prairie herd. The herd now located in the Withlacoochee State Forest was formed from the surplus produced in the Department of Agriculture's herd in Tallahassee along with some extra animals from Payne's Prairie. These herds have been selected over the years to maintain the historical size, coloration and spotting, and horn shapes of the cattle of the 1800's. Pictures of Florida Cracker Cattle from as early as 1908 are in existence; they provided useful guides during the selection process. Specifically, we eliminated cattle with traits of Brahman, Hereford and other modern-day cattle breeds, sometimes through the use of blood typing.

A process of selection of foundation cattle was established early on and the herdbook is now closed. In addition to cattle already in state of Florida herds, herds of Florida Cracker cattle without any "outside blood" in them formed the base of the Florida Cracker cattle that we have today. Some of the more significant of these were the Ezell cattle of Taylor County that were preserved by Raymond Hamlin of Wilma, Florida and now are owned and cared for by Steve Summers of this same area, near the Apalachicola National Forest. These cattle are primarily solid-colored (light reds along with a few black animals) today although a few spotted individuals were present in the Ezell herd in the 1980's. The Ezell cattle apparently survived because of the sheer extensiveness of their range, supposedly they could travel up to 40 miles without having to go through a fence as the timber company holdings on which they grazed were so vast. Thus, Cracker bulls could survive and continue to sire calves under such conditions long after they would have been replaced with "good" bulls throughout most of Florida.

Other herds of cattle were more intentionally bred such as the James Durrance herd where Mr. Durrance simply refused to change either the genetics or the management of the cattle. Only Florida Cracker cattle born and raised on his property were supposed to be able to survive his level of management. On the other extreme was the herd of cattle maintained by the Barnes family of Florala, AL. They selected for a larger, "beefier" type of Cracker cattle under more favorable nutrition. A descendant, Billy Barnes, still maintains a small herd of Barnes cattle in southern Alabama today. While most of the Durrance cattle were solid-colored (red, black, dark brown or brindle), many of the Barnes cattle were nearly white, usually with red or black ears. Cattle of a similar type were maintained by the Holt family of near Pinehurst, Georgia but few if any of these cattle survive today. Some pure and nearly pure Barnes cattle do still exist.

Registration of Florida Cracker Cattle

Florida Cracker Cattle that are descendants of the original cattle that were approved by committees of persons knowledgeable about the historical attributes of the cattle are now registered through the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy in Pittsboro, NC. Dr. Tim Olson of the University of Florida Department of Animal Sciences can provide assistance in initiating the process.

Page last updated August 22, 2013.