Senepol cattle are very much creatures of the environment in which they were first bred, the Caribbean island of St. Croix, with qualities that make the breed especially suitable for areas with hot climates and limited forage.
The breed takes its name from Senegal, the country of one of its ancestral bloodlines, the N’Dama breed, which had been imported into St. Croix from Senegal in the 1800s. N’Dama had become widespread in West Africa because of their tolerance for heat and their resistance to insects and disease, especially trypanosomiasis, the disease spread by the tsetse fly. As a Bos taurus breed, N’Dama are naturally more disease-resistant than cattle of the Bos indicus subspecies. They are hardy and can cope well with limited foraging opportunities. Today, the N’Dama is West Africa’s most populous breed, numbering some 7 million head.
Ranchers had tried to introduce more productive breeds from temperate climates to St. Croix, but none had thrived. The N’Dama, for all their virtues, were relatively small animals with below-average milk production. In 1918, Bromley Nelthropp, scion of a family with one of the largest N’Dama herds on St. Croix, imported a Red Poll bull from Trinidad, hoping to breed cattle that would inherit some of the Red Poll’s better qualities, especially their high milk production and their lack of horns.
More Red Poll bulls followed, and the resulting cross-bred animals were selected for heat tolerance, a solid red color and a natural absence of horns. The experiment was successful, but it was not until the 1940s that breeders were satisfied that they had found the right genetic combination. At that point, breeding was restricted to full-blooded Senepol animals. In the ensuing years, Senepol cattle spread throughout St. Croix, where they are now found primarily in four herds, the two largest herds containing 220 and 400 cows.
Genetic records were kept from the very beginning, giving rise to a breed registry in the 1960s, and the relative isolation of St. Croix meant that the breed’s development was sheltered from outside influence. For much of its history, the breed did not leave the island, and it was used to provide beef for the local population. As a result, breeding was limited to polled cattle that best met ranchers’ goals of heat tolerance, quiet disposition, maternal efficiency and early maturity.
With a long-standing herd book and, beginning in 1976, a performance testing program, the first Senepol were imported into the continental United States in 1977. The breed’s development was also aided by assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1950s, at a time when sugar cane was becoming less viable as the foundation of the island’s economy. Senepol have spread across the southern states and, from the original planeload of 22 cows, there are now 500 breeders and 14,000 head of Senepol on American soil.
Today, the breed demonstrates many of the advantages of its two ancestors. The Senepol has maintained the heat tolerance, insect and disease resistance, foraging ability and vigor of the N’Dama, combining these traits with the larger size, excellent maternal qualities, lack of horns, calving ease and longevity of the Red Poll line. The breed’s deliberate development and its unusually isolated history mean that it tolerates inbreeding well and that it can bring significant hybrid vigor into a breeding program.