The history of Limousin cattle may very well be as old as the European continent itself. Cattle found in cave drawings estimated to be 16,000 years old in the Lascaux Cave near Montignac, France, have a striking resemblance to today's Limousin.
These golden-red cattle are native to the south central part of France in the regions of Limousin and Marche. The terrain of the homeland has been described as rugged and rolling with rocky soil and a harsh climate. Consequently, the growing of field crops was very difficult at best and emphasis was placed on animal agriculture. Limousin cattle, as a result of their environment, evolved into a breed of unusual sturdiness, health and adaptability. This lack of natural resources also enabled the region to remain relatively isolated and the farmers free to develop their cattle with little outside genetic interference.
During these early times of animal power, Limousin gained a well-earned reputation as work animals in addition to their beef qualities. Rene Lafarge reported in 1698. "Limousin oxen were universally renown and esteemed both as beasts of burden and beef cattle." At the end of their work life these animals were then fattened for slaughter.
Traditionally, French cattle were kept in a confinement or semi-confinement situation. However, Limousin cattle spent the majority of their time outdoors in the harsh climate of the region. This was a source of great pride to the breeders. The cows calved year round, outdoors, to bring in a regular source of income and the heifers were bred to calve at three years of age. In the winter, the entire herd was outside and whatever the season, the cattle were handled on a daily basis.
Once in the 1700s and again in the mid 1800s, an attempt was made by a small number of French Limousin breeders to crossbreed their cattle in hopes of gaining both size and scale. In 1840, several breeders crossbred their Limousin with the Agenaise breed.
The resulting animals were taller, having more volume of muscling in their hindquarter. Unfortunately, however, these crossbred cattle proved not to be economical as they needed a larger amount of feed than could be provided in the majority of the region. Only near Limoges, where manure and fertilizers were plentiful and growing of field crops was widespread, did these cattle prosper.
Limousin breeders admitted their mistake and then concentrated upon improving the breed through natural selection. A leader in the natural selection movement was Charles de Leobary and his herdsman, Royer. Through a very tough, selective process these two developed an outstanding herd of "purebred" Limousin. From 1854 to 1896 the de Leobary herd won a total of 265 ribbons at the prestigious Bordeaux Competition, one of France's finest cattle shows.
Limousin cattle made a deep impression in French cattle shows during the 1850s. The first show wins were at the Bordeaux Fair where Limousin took second and third places. The cattle belonged to the already mentioned de Leobary herd. Furthermore, in 1857, '58 and '59, Limousin animals topped other breeds in some of the first carcase competitions at the farm produce competition held in Poissy, near Paris. The reputation of Limousin as meat animals was firmly established. Today, Limousin cattle are still referred to as the "butcher's animal" in France.
The widespread use of natural selection made it important to record the bloodlines of the outstanding Limousin bulls and females. So, in November of 1886, the first Limousin Herd Book was established. Louis Michel presided over the herd book, the objective of which was to ensure the uniformity of the breed. Michel and his 11 fellow herd book commissioners were extremely rigid in their selections. Between 1887 and 1890, the commission met six times and out of 1,800 animals presented for registration from 150 different farms, only a total of 674 (177 males and 497 females) were accepted for registration.
The formation of the herd book had other important consequences. Once established, the French government then established shows solely for Limousin cattle. As with their counterparts today, these shows provided tremendous exposure for the breed as the many valuable traits of these beef cattle were presented for all to see.
By July of 1914, the total number of animals registered in the herd book was 5,416. The herd book has been reorganized twice since it was founded, once in 1923 and again in 1937. Both times these reorganizations were used to redefine the characteristics of the breed, making the breeders more selective, thus improving the quality of the animals.
Through the late 1800s and early 1900s, Limousin breeders paid close attention to morphological characteristics as the breed developed. The medium size of these cattle as compared to other European breeds was, and is still, an outstanding breed trait. They also selected for the dark golden-red hide with wheat coloured underpinnings. French records also show a great deal of emphasis was stressed upon deep chest, a strong top-line, well-placed tailhead and strongly-muscled hindquarter. The end result was an efficient, hardy, adaptable animal which was extremely well-suited for its only intended purpose…..to produce meat.
The first attempt to introduce Limousin to other countries was to Brazil in 1886. An inspector of agricultural teaching in Brazil imported a bull and a pregnant cow. Further importation to Brazil took place in 1910, 1912, 1928 and 1929 but the breed did not become established.
Limousins were imported to Uruguay in 1910, Argentina in 1924, Madagascar in 1922 and to Portugal in 1929 and later in 1953. And so in spite of the creation in 1925 of an Association for the Expansion and Export of the Limousin Breed of Cattle none of the attempts to introduce the cattle abroad were successful. The only positive example was New Caledonia where Limousin cattle had been imported on a regular basis for 70 years.
Limousin Spread in the 1960s to Argentina. In July 1966 two bulls and three cows were imported by Donal Fortin, Carlos Sastre and Maximo Costella quickly followed by 34 more animals. The breed has expanded from there. To Brazil in 1978 a French entrepreneur took 56 animals from France and a year later 100 Limousin were imported by the Rio Grande de Norte government.
In 1985 and 1986 Arilear Yamin, Rui Duimond and Serafim Meneghel bought all of the cattle from the Rio Grande de Norte project. Significant imports of Limousin cattle from France, USA and Canada have occurred in the 1990s.
To North America. The opening of the Grosse Isle quarantine station by the Canadian government enabled the first Limousin bull Prince Pompadour to arrive in Canada in 1968. Another group of bulls followed in 1969.
Semen from Prince Pompadour became available in the USA in 1969 and the first Limousin bulls imported permanently to the USA arrived in 1971. The North American Limousin Foundation is now the largest Limousin Association in the world.
To Europe. Limousin were imported to Spain in 1965, Italy in 1968, Holland in 1969 and Denmark in 1970. In 1971 the United Kingdom accepted Limousin cattle and a year later the Republic of Ireland.
During the first week of June 1970 a delegation of breeders and two government representatives travelled to France to select the 178 animals which would make up the first importation for 22 buyers, breeders and artificial insemination centres. In December of the same year cattle went into quarantine on English soil and in February 1971 they were dispersed to the different owners.
To Australia and New Zealand. The introduction of Limousin to the UK and Ireland opened the way for the import of Limousin to New Zealand and Australia. The first semen from the UK reached Australia and New Zealand in November 1972 followed by semen from bulls resident in Canada in March 1973. Soon after New Zealand allowed the importation of animals from the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. The first full blood cattle in Australia were imported from New Zealand in 1975.
To the World. Limousin cattle are now in about 70 countries around the world from the northern most herds of Finland to countries such as Cuba, South Africa and China.