By Klaire Bruce, Missouri – Ankole Watusi are known as the “Cattle of Kings.” Their unmistakably large horns can spear a lion. The tribes of Africa that rely on them for survival call them sacred. They are built to survive in harsh conditions with sparse forage. What are these wonder cattle?
What Are Ankole Watusi Cattle?
Ankole Watusi are part of a list of exotic cattle breeds that stands out from all the rest. A medium-sized bovine (cows range from 950 to 1,200 pounds and bulls from 1,200 to 1,500 pounds), Ankole Watusi come in solid or spotted colors, with dark red being the most prominent. Their long legs, made for outrunning and out-jumping predators on the African savannah, give them outstanding athletic ability. The cows sport a small, tight udder that produces a high-quality, butterfat-rich milk for their calves. And let’s not forget those famous horns. These giant spears can span up to eight feet from tip to tip. African tribes select cows for the quality of their horns and ability to fend off predators. The horns on a Watusi also act as a cooling system for the cattle; the blood circulates up through the horns and the heat leaves the blood through the tips of the horns. The cooled blood then circulates back through the animal’s body. This unique cooling system makes the Watusi extremely resilient to harsh weather conditions. They can take the heat as well as the cold, and be quite comfortable. Watusi are also known for their ability to utilize poor quality forage and limited food and water sources. These hardy cattle are quite social and prefer to forage and rest in groups for comfort and protection.
Ankole Watusi Cattle: Origins
The history of the Watusi breed spans thousands of years. Humans first domesticated cattle more than 8,000 years ago. Roughly 2,000 years after that, various strains of African cattle began to mix through the generations as the people of Africa began to move across the continent. The result of this mixing was the emergence of a distinct type of cattle called the Sanga. Watusi are one of the oldest breeds branching from the Sanga type. The Watusi themselves originated in East Africa; they are named after the Tutsi tribe that raised them. These cattle are viewed as sacred by the African people and are rarely used for meat production among the tribes. Instead, the cows are milked and bled (usually from a small cut made in the cow’s neck), and both liquids are combined to make a clabbered, yogurt-like mixture with a high protein content that is a staple to tribal diets. Watusi are considered a status symbol among the tribes; the more cattle a man has, the wealthier he is. The cattle also play a role as a gift to a bride’s family during a tribal wedding.
Ankole Watusi: How They Came to North America
Ankole Watusi cattle first arrived on the cattle ranching scene in North America in the 1960s. A gentleman by the name of Walter Schultz imported two Watusi bulls from Scandinavia and followed up shortly after with a female to keep the large-horned fellows company. Slowly, the Watusi found their way into the hands of zoos and private breeders. With the perseverance of the people dedicated to the breed, the Watusi numbers in the United States have grown along with their popularity.
Ankole Watusi Cattle: How They Fit into the Economy
While Watusi cattle are considered exotic in the U.S. (many are owned by zoos, game farms and exotic animal reserves), they have many practical applications and uses that can greatly benefit North American cattle farms. There is a good market for Watusi beef—these efficient cattle produce a good quality, lean, low cholesterol meat. Low fat and low cholesterol beef is very appealing to health-conscious consumers. Many breeders favor crossing Watusi with Texas Longhorns; Watusi are already built for horns and the product is a well-built calf with good hybrid vigor. Watusi can also, surprisingly enough, bring some good traits to the table with the dairy market as well; breeding Watusi into a dairy herd will boost the butterfat levels of the milk. On the recreational side of things, Watusi and Watusi crosses make superior roping cattle. Ropers love tossing a loop at these big horned beauties!
What Ankole Watusi Cattle Need
If you’re interested in cattle farming for beginners, Ankole Watusi cattle are fairly easy keepers due to their hardiness. They can survive on little water and low-quality feed. Watusi possess a digestive system that utilizes every bit of moisture within their bodies. That being said, Watusi, just like any cattle, do far better on a good quality feeding program. Being the efficient cattle that they are, they don’t need large amounts of feed. A little of a high protein ration will go a long way. Watusi have minimal needs as far as shelter—a run-in shed or barn to escape the rain is nice, but bear in mind that it needs to be large enough for the cattle to fit comfortably without horning their neighbors, and any protruding hazards that might catch a horn should be removed.
Breeding of the Watusi can be tailored to fit the needs of the farm and the herd. Artificial Insemination (AI) can be used in a breeding program with as much success as natural breeding. These cattle are often bred for the quality of horn. Not all Watusi or Watusi crosses bear good horn and these cattle are often culled, somewhat similar to the natural selection process in the wild: the weaker cattle with low-quality horn get taken down by predators, leaving the stronger cows with better headgear to carry on the bloodline. Many half-breed Watusi cows are successfully bred back each generation until the calves eventually return to full-blooded Watusi cattle. This process is called “upbreeding.” Upbreeding and adding new blood to the Watusi bloodlines was extremely beneficial in the 1980s when problems from inbreeding arose.
Watusi can normally be marketed through the same venues as other cattle. But the unique thing about Watusi, and also one of the best selling points, is that they are not like other cattle—they are giant-horned wonders! Use the not-so-average traits of this great breed to your marketing advantage. If you live in a rodeo prominent area, market them as roping cattle. If you have a farmers market that attracts crowds, emphasize the lean, healthy beef. If you know a neighbor who wants a unique pasture ornament, sell them a Watusi! To reach a greater number of buyers, Watusi are often marketed through exotic animal auctions—these circus-like events attract buyers in droves. Most auctions have a specific section for exotic livestock separate from the other animals. Another way to present Watusi cattle to potential customers on the wild side is to advertise in exotic animal publications. Online marketing, and selling and swapping among other Watusi owners are also good ways to move your stock—and never underestimate the power of good ol’ fashioned word of mouth!
Ankole Watusi and You
Now that you’ve been introduced to the ancient long-horned Ankole Watusi, you might be interested in adding some to your herd. Whether it’s for beef, dairy, rodeo practice or simply having some pretty unique cows in your fields, these Cattle of Kings are sure to fit into your backyard.
Originally published in the January/February 2014 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.