The Cattle of Kings

Article by Mary Kiley
Taken from AgGeorgia Farm Credit Publication "Leader"

When Fred Akins first saw the cattle in a pasture near Anderson, South Carolina, he thought they were Texas longhorns. But after a closer look at the animals he knew this was a breed he had never seen before. They were Watusi cattle, still a relative rarity in the U.S. although there are today a growing number of breeders.

Big Red

Fred was intrigued by this strange looking beast, "They were so different." So he drove up to the house near the pasture where the cattle were grazing and asked the owner about them. "It took me three years to convince the owner to sell me a pair of the animals," Fred says, but later on he was able to purchase four more animals.

The history of the Watusi reaches back several millennia. They, like all domestic cattle breeds, are descendents of the Aurochs, the prehistoric ox mentioned in the Bible. By 2000 B.C. longhorn Zebu cattle from India had made their way into what is today northern Africa. They interbred with the Egyptian longhorn resulting in the Sangatype cattle, which was the base stock of many African breeds. The Tutsi tribe's Sanga variety of cattle was called Watusi and was considered to be a sacred animal. In parts of Africa wealthy tribal chiefs kept herds of the horned cattle, thus they are sometimes called cattle of kings.

Watusi cattle were first brought from Africa to be exhibited in European zoos in the late 1800s. American zoos brought the animals to this country in the early 20th century and only during the past few decades have breeders been looking at the Watusi with a commercial eye.

Young BullThe most notable feature of the Watusi cattle is their horns; it is not unusual for them to reach five feet or longer in length with a ten-foot span from tip to tip. Differentiating them from the Texas longhorn is the size of the base of the Watusi horn, which is commonly 18 inches or more in circumference. The large horns allows for the blood circulating through them to cool, much like a radiator, allowing the animals to tolerate extreme heat, a valuable trait since their native climate often reaches 120 degrees in the summer.

Today, Fred and his wife Brenda are proud owners of a herd of twenty-four Watusi cattle. "We don't have enough acreage to profitably raise traditional beef cattle," says Fred, but the Watusi are able to survive and thrive on forage of a lesser quality than most other breeds. They require less feed and water than a typical beef cow, too. They are very much social animals and stick together as a herd, both day and night. Fred also observes that they exhibit a most docile temperament, as the herd's dominant bull, Samson, nuzzles up asking to be petted, "But you have to watch the horns. They don't realize how long their horns are and they can hit you without meaning to," he adds.

There is a growing market for the animals. Several of the Akins' animals are for sale; the family has a website designed to help promote the cattle: Fred has recently spoken to a restaurateur from the metro Atlanta area who is interested in purchasing Watusi meat for his specialty restaurant. Brenda says "the meat is much leaner than typical beef. It's not quite as lean as venison, more like beef-a-lo." There is also a market for the skulls and horns, which can demand a substantial price for decoration in homes and businesses.

Number 9

In addition to the Watusi cattle, which they have had for about seven years, the Akins' have two breeder hen houses. Fred says he came to Farm Credit over twenty-six years ago for financing for his farm. "Doyle Hart (who was the branch manager of the Royston office then) said he'd take a chance on me since he knew my folks," says Fred, "So we built our first chicken house. Four or five years later we built the second one. Back then you didn't have all the mechanization and sensors that you have now and someone pretty much had to be on site all the time." Today Fred and a hired hand manage the chicken houses and cattle since all of the Akins children have left the home place to build their own families and careers. Fred and Brenda's four children all live in the area and the family is still close-knit. Freddy Jr. has a Masters in Marriage & Family Counseling but employed as a Web Developer and works a small hay farm. Son Kip is the Director of Operations at their church, Pleasant Grove in Bowman and daughter Wendy is a homemaker married to a Madison County deputy sheriff. Their youngest son Caleb is the youth pastor at their church.

As the Akins' Watusi herd grows, Fred expects to improve the herd genetics through select breeding and introducing new blood to the herd from outside purchases of animals. He foresees that the demand for the meat will increase as the trend for healthier meat with higher protein, lower cholesterol and fat, strengthens. In the meantime, he'll be content tending to his herd of "Cattle of Kings".