The Salers evolved in a harsh environment of rocky terrain and extremes of temperature, an area that was not amenable to the cultivation of cereal grains. Of necessity, the Salers relied on natural forage, spending the summer grazing at high altitude and the surviving the long winter in the valleys, where the cattle could be maintained almost entirely on hay. Their excellent foraging ability has persisted to the present.
Like many of their European counterparts, the Salers served as a draft animal before agriculture was mechanized and was simultaneously used as a beef animal and milk producer. Its milk is especially suited to cheese production because of its relatively high fat content, and the making of cheese was an important part of regional agriculture for many years.
The modern history of the breed began around 1850, when French breeder Ernest Tyssandier d'Escous, a staunch opponent of crossbreeding, began selectively breeding pure Salers animals in their native territory. The breed became known in the area for its excellent for beef and milk production, leading Tyssandier d'Escous to organize its first show in 1853. This was followed by the creation of the first herd book in 1906.
For much of the twentieth century, the popularity of the breed was in decline. Its utility as a working breed had become less relevant and it faced increasing competition from breeds bred specifically for milk production. This decline was compounded by the Salers cow's need for her calf to be present at milking time, making the process less efficient for the dairy farmer. The breed survived, however, because of continued demand for Salers beef in Italy and parts of France.
It was not until 1972 that a bull named Valliant came to Canada, the first Salers representative in North America. Valliant was followed by the import of a bull and four heifers into the United States in 1975 and the arrival of another 58 head in the United States and 100 head in Canada over the next three years. These cattle are the forerunners of the breed in North America, where it has taken a firm hold, with 28,000 head registered each year.
The typical Salers is a striking mahogany color with lyre-shaped horns, but a small minority of animals are black or polled. Their genetic purity makes them very predictable in breeding and, as active foragers, they make very efficient use of pasture. They tolerate extremes of climate well and can maintain milk production even when food is scarce.
At maturity, Salers cattle are relatively large, with cows weighing approximately 1,500 pounds, but they bear medium-sized calves and, as a result, calve easily. They can be excellent milk producers, but their primary role in today's market is as beef cattle, since they provide excellent beef yield without sacrificing marbling.