Santa Gertrudis cattle have a unique American history that began, unsurprisingly, in Texas. The breed was born on land that became one of the largest ranches in the world, the King Ranch, where these cattle were built to thrive in the hot, humid and harsh conditions of the South Texas coast. The qualities that served so well in that climate have translated into noteworthy success in other environments around the world.
The breed takes its name from a geographical feature that inspired Captain Richard King to establish the ranch where he did. In 1852, King came upon the Santa Gertrudis Creek, the first water he encountered on a four-day ride across the Wild Horse Desert from Brownsville to Corpus Christi. With Captain Gideon Lewis as his partner, King established a cattle camp on the land. By the 1870s, the ranch, by then a much larger operation, was populated mainly by Texas Longhorns along with Beef Shorthorns, Herefords and several bulls of primarily Brahman lineage.
By 1918, King Ranch breeders had become aware that cattle sired by a Shorthorn-Brahman cross, Chemmera, who had mated with pure Shorthorn females, showed reliably superior performance. As a result, the King Ranch obtained 52 three-year-old bulls that were between three-fourths and seven-eights Brahman and divided them among eight herds of Shorthorn cows. In 1920, one of those bulls, known as the Vinotero bull, was mated to a descendant of the exceptional Chemmera. One of their offspring, a bull calf named Monkey, went on to become the progenitor of all of today's Santa Gertrudis cattle.
Monkey, named for his playful disposition, was a noteworthy calf, dark red in color, well muscled and sturdy, who weighed 1000 pounds when he was 12 months old. His descendants share Monkey's genetic makeup of five-eights Shorthorn and three-eighths Brahman that today defines the Santa Gertrudis breed. From the beginning, they retained Monkey's ability to demonstrate rapid and efficient growth in harsh conditions, his good disposition and his outstanding foraging ability. By the time of his death in 1932, Monkey had sired approximately 150 active sons. The breed was recognized by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1940, when it became the first officially designated American breed of beef cattle.
Their genetic makeup enables Santa Gertrudis to adapt to a wide range of environments, including the hot, dry climates of New Mexico, Arizona and South Texas and the humid conditions that prevail from the Texas coast to Florida. Their thick, loose hide gives the breed several advantages. It protects them from insects and insulates them from the cold, while sweat glands within the hide help to dissipate heat. As a result, herds of purebred Santa Gertrudis can be found from Canada to Argentina and have become the Australian cattle industry's prevalent breed.
Santa Gertrudis cattle are characterized by their vigor, hardiness, rapid growth and long productive lives. Females will mate when 12 to 14 months old and calve as two-year-olds. They produce abundant milk, resulting in heavy calves at weaning. Most cows are still productive at 12 years of age and some will remain productive members of the breeding herd all the way up to age 18. Steers adapt readily to feedlot or pasture and show rapid and efficient weight gain while producing lean, high quality beef superior to that of pure Brahmans. In addition, Santa Gertrudis steer can be turned off at virtually any age.
King Ranch continues to be a center of Santa Gertrudis breeding and maintains a purebred herd of some 1100 cattle today. As part of its efforts to respond to the wishes of consumers, the ranch has developed a composite breed, the Santa Cruz, by crossing Santa Gertrudis with Red Angus and Gelbvieh. The goal is a breed that retains the efficiency and adaptability of the Santa Gertrudis while producing beef that is more tender and better marbled than purebred Santa Gertrudis beef. Regardless of those improvements, Santa Gertrudis remains the original American beef breed.