By: Marlin Neidhardt
A brief overview of the beginning of Watusi cattle in America and cattle husbandry. Written by a layman, for a layman.
Watusi, “The Cattle of Kings”, invoke a special feeling in the hearts of those they touch. So, if you see these magnificent, huge horned cattle and they stir a magic feeling in your soul – it is something special to nurture and enjoy.
A first hand knowledge of cattle in general is certainly helpful. If you don’t have cattle “know how”, in order to become a Watusi owner you will need to study bovine care and then add the study of Watusi habits and needs. It is a fact that while they are bovine, they have certain special personality trails and different needs than average cattle.
Our first introduction to Watusi added fuel to a fire that was already burning with regard to horned cattle. Fascinated with Texas Longhorns and Scotch Highlanders, our 1980 introduction to Watusi was exciting, leading us to the different, rare and unique! After seeing pictures and reading the sketchy bits of information that was available we lived and breathed “how to acquire” a Watusi. Even One would be a feat as very few full blood (later to be called Foundation Pure) Watusi were owned privately. We decided to try AI (artificial insemination) using Watusi semen on longhorn cows. This experience was invaluable as even 1/2 blood Watusi carry strong characteristics of the breed and helped us to understand Watusi husbandry. These 1/2 blood females were the first rung on the ladder in an upbreeding program. Each successive generation bred back Watusi brought the offspring closer to full blood Watusi.
Even the half blood calves sought out each other, seeming to recognize the kinship and fulfilling their needs to socialize. These babies carried unique color patterns (largely influenced by their sire, “Jimmy the Swede” who was one of the very first Watusi from whom semen was drawn. Very shortly there were several more sires available, however, the flamboyant color pattern of the Swedish line of Watusi left an indelible mark on the breed.
While longhorns have colorful hides and often have wide white linebackers, the Watusi of Swedish influence have a pattern like no other bovines have. A dark (generally red, brown or black) body with white side markings of varying sizes and the white was then speckled and spotted with the base body color. A unique facial mask completed their colorful attire! These beautifully colored individuals made a strong Watusi statement.
Others were solid colored and with use of various Watusi sires crossed on longhorn dams, some were colored like longhorns. (The discussion centers on percentage Watusi at this point.)
It must also be mentioned that almost all breeds were tried in the upbreeding program. Results were quite varied and it became the general consensus that the Texas longhorn was the best choice because they were more similar to the Watusi than the other breeds were.
Back to the characteristics. The Watusi part blood calves were incredibly alert worthy after birth. Born easily because of three narrow body structure, these babies were “ready to run”! Instinct for the danger of predators was apparent when some would dive under their mothers when startled.
Now back to the availability of the Watusi in the U.S.A. One must visualize the fact that prior to the early 1970’s there were no (none/zero!) Watusi in the United States. First brought into zoos, they had come from Canada – taking the long way from Africa. Their travels spanned 40+ years and many trials and tribulations. An extremely interesting and vital link in the Watusi story is that 21 head (14 cows and 7 bulls) left Africa in 1929 with a like shipment leaving in 1930. (This exportation as accomplished by the venturesome Walter Schulz family who were by profession animal exporters/importers of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.) These 42 head make up the genetic base of all Watusi presently residing outside of Africa. They were taken first to Europe and distributed to zoos there. The coming of W.W.II wreaked havoc on European Zoos which was a sad state of affairs for many animal species including the Watusi.
After the War, Watusi were brought to North American soil, first into Canada and later, in the early 1970’s finally into the U.S.A.
So, you can see, when they did arrive, they were both awesome to view and extremely rare. By shortly before 1980 private ownership became possible on a very limited basis. There was great excitement as to what private breeders could accomplish with such a unique breed “if only” they could possess 1 bull, or even a pair of Foundation Watusi. It was speculated that the huge horned cattle could be crossed with Texas longhorns, Scottish Highlanders or Corriente cattle to create the perfect roping stock, the ultimate rodeo bovine breeds, etc.
Fast growing, strong based horns could feasibly make steers ready to rope at less than a year of age. Thrifty stock with the ability to survive on lesser quality forage in lesser amounts, etc. were all traits that went with the plan.
To a certain extent these predictions were accurate, They did rapidly grow horn, however, as all good animal husbandry folks will tell, “you can’t starve a profit into anything”. The Watusi and Watusi crosses are a lean bellied stock and do not need huge amounts of feed, but they certainly do much better on good quality feed!
Importers brought in addition a small number of Foundation Watusi from zoos and game parks in Sweden and England in the early 1980’s. These two sources were able to pass the rigid health requirements at that time.
Thus the first Watusi that we personally heard of was “Jimmy the Swede” and the Watusi herd of the Rare Animal Survival Center, Ocala, Florida. Being rare, these cattle were “out of sight” price wise. There were few owners of foundation Watusi at this time. Mostly folks highly interested in horned cattle and they felt – – the bigger the better, which was exactly what Watusi could supply!
I remember asking how much barn space they would need because of the horn span. The reply was, “this is a very social breed – they “Glum” together. “Why, you could put eleven of them in a box stall!!” Well this statement sure did have some truth! Of course, one wouldn’t really try such a feat (unless in a contest such as, how many people can be crowded into a phone booth!!) But once we had developed our own herd of Watusi cattle we understood the statement, for where one is, they all are!
I am telling these facts and tidbits because those of you who have recently been introduced to Watusi missed the thrill, excitement and leaning experiences of the early ears of Watusi owners. I feel that you need to know the past so that you can understand the Watusi of the present.
These great cattle have maintained the status of “The Cattle of Kings” because of their magnificent way of being. They are much more plentiful today (1996) and much more affordable but they don’t know all of that. they just go on being Watusi. God created them with a special attitude, unique traits and characteristics and they have gone on undaunted over an estimated 8000 years.
Because of the small genetic base the upbreeding program was immediately accepted by the World Watusi Association when it formed in 1984. There were cattle showing the signs of inbreeding weakness such as finished bodies, homeliness, unthriftiness, hip problems, low fertility or late fertility, etc.
As a breeders have carefully selected matings, infused new blood, etc over the past 13 years, the Watusi in the USA have strengthened. Today the inbreeding problems appear to be eliminated. Comparisons to the earliest arrivals show improved horn growth and body structure. Many of today’s Watusi are even more magnificent than the first ones that came to our country.
The animals that beginning breeders have to select from are for the most part a much more sound investment.
While numbers have definitely increased the Watusi are still a very RARE BREED. Watusi are not for everyone to own, but for those who want to, have the ability and facilities, the “Cattle of Kings” can impart a special feeling to their hearts. Watusi is a breed to be cherished, preserved and enjoyed. They are truly RARE.
(Administrator’s Note: Marlin Neidhardt of Crawford, Nebraska served on the Board of Directors of the World Watusi Association for a number of years.)