There’s a lot at stake: SFOP steers Virginia’s exploration of new cattle breeds that can
weather the effects of climate change and produce top-grade meat.
By Dr. Neil Brown, assistant professor, VSU College of Agriculture
Worldwide, there are over 250 cattle breeds that are used primarily to supply beef; yet few
breeds are represented in steak houses, and on dinner tables and backyard grills across the
United States. Each breed is unique, and finding the right breed for the right situation is crucial
to meet the growing demand for beef, especially with changing climates, markets and
consumer preferences.
Well, this is exactly what the most recent Small Farm Outreach Program project strives to do:
find the right breed or right combination of breeds for small operations that raise cattle for
beef production in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
This is a really exciting project. Small producers often do not have the luxury to take risks and
experiment with different breeds. Having a place like SFOP that takes those risks on behalf of
small-scale farmers and involves them in the process of gathering new knowledge is really
SFOP is working in collaboration with Dr. Richard Browning at Tennessee State University, who
provided the animals, and Minority and Veteran Farmers of the Piedmont, a Virginia-based
grassroots non-profit organization focused on supporting farmers, veterans and youths.
Currently grazing at VSU Randolph Farms are 14 animals, a combination of Dexter, Mashona
and Angus cattle. The Dexters are a small, versatile Irish breed that has been used for both milk
and meat in different parts of the world. Mashona cattle are a Zimbabwean meat breed known
for their heat tolerance, which is important because extreme heat can reduce the appetites and
reproductive capacities of cattle. If animals aren’t eating, then they aren’t growing, and if they
are not reproducing, then the supply of beef stops. As increased heat risk is projected in
Virginia’s climate future, SFOP, a transformational leader, is addressing the risks now with this
innovative approach. Finally, Angus cattle, a widely used beef breed in the US, will serve as a
good measuring stick for the growth and quality of meat resulting from the other animals.
Dexters and Mashonas, innately docile animals, offer the opportunity to provide hands-on
experiences for students at VSU, even those that are new to cattle management. I will be
teaching a beef production course in fall 2023, so you know these animals will be featured in a
classroom near you
For more information, contact Alston Hillard, SFOP assistant director, at or
me at