The Shorthorn breed of cattle originated in the North East of England in the late 18th century. The breed was developed as dual purpose, suitable for both dairy and beef production; however there were always certain blood lines within the breed which emphasised one quality or the other. Over time these different lines diverged and by the second half of the 20th century two separate breeds had developed - the Beef Shorthorn, and the Dairy Shorthorn. All Shorthorn cattle are coloured red, white or roan, although roan cattle are preferred by some, and completely white animals are not common. However, one type of Shorthorn has been bred to be consistently white – the Whitebred Shorthorn, which was developed to cross with black Galloway cattle to produce a popular blue roan crossbreed, the Blue Grey.
At the same time Thomas Bates of Kirklevington and John Booth of Killesby were developing the Teeswater cattle. The Bates cattle were subsequently developed for their milking qualities, whereas the Booth cattle were developed for their beef qualities.
In 1822 George Coates published the first volume of his herd book, this was the first pedigree herd book for cattle in the world.
Coates published the first four volumes, after which Henry Stafford took over the ownership and publishing of the herd book, retaining the name "Coates's Herd Book". The Shorthorn Society of Great Britain and Ireland was founded in 1874, and purchased the copyright of the Herd Book from Stafford. They have continued to compile and publish Coates's Herd Book ever since. The American Shorthorn Herd Book was the first to be published in this country for any breed and was started in 1846, with the formation of the American Shorthorn Association following 26 years later in 1872. Note that in 1958 the Beef Shorthorn breeders of Great Britain and Ireland started their own section of the herd book.
The breed has a wide genetic base, resulting in the development of several distinct though closely related strains — these are the traditional strains:
The current Shorthorn Society of Australia encompasses the Poll Shorthorn, Australian Shorthorn and the Durham.
Many other beef cattle breeds have used Shorthorn genetics in the developement of new breeds such as the Belmont Red.
Today the breed is found mainly in English speaking countries, and South America. The main countries are: Argentina, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Republic of Ireland, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States of America, Uruguay, and Zimbabwe. Beamish Museum preserves the Durham breed.