2015 October Issue- Week 1

September 30, 2015

Longhorns1MerleGrabhorne

Longhorns Eating Cactus-Living on Poor Forage

From an old Postcard (Authors Collection)

HOW THE LONGHORNS WERE SAVED

by Merle Grabhorn

It may surprise you that, by the beginning of the 20th century, the icon of the American West, the Longhorns, were virtually extinct.  Thirty years previously, they had been the dominant breed of cattle in the US; however,  by 1900 Longhorns were considered trash or” scrub cattle.“ What happened?    Longhorns were hardy, had evolved disease resistance, ease of calving, strong mothering instincts, and other traits such as hard hooves and dangerous horns to protect themselves.  What’s more, they could walk for miles for water, utilize poor forage, and raise strong healthy calves year after year.   They were the perfect breed for the American West.  It was ranching economics, not genetics, that led to the decline and near extinction of the Longhorn.

Three Strikes and You’re Out

There were three causes that led to the decline and near extinction of Longhorns.    The first strike against Longhorns was that new breeds of cattle began showing up in the West.  Towards the end of the 19th century, purebred cattle breeds from Europe and Asia became available such as Hereford, Shorthorn, and Angus.

Since Angus beef is often marketed in grocery stores and even fast food chains, a comparison between Angus and Longhorn tells the story.    An Angus cow can reach an average weight of 1,200 to 1,800 pounds, while a Longhorn cow will average 1000 pounds.   Thusly, an Angus can easily average about 25 percent more weight than a Longhorn.   That’s a 25 percent increase in profit per head.    Further, Angus have what cattlemen call “Superior Feed Conversion” which means that an Angus will return larger amounts of beef for the same amount of feed.    The Angus reaches maturity relatively early in comparison to the Longhorn.   Calves are born sooner and they mature faster.  That said, the return on Angus is both greater and quicker.

Strike Two-The Need for Fat

The Longhorn is a very lean animal.  Compared to an Angus it has about 80percent less fat per pound.    Historically, candles, soaps, lubricants and cooking all required tallow.  The demand for the tallow and hides was a driving force for the cattle business.    Hides could be obtained from Longhorns but not much fat.    Cattle processing companies were willing to pay more for cattle with fat that could be rendered for tallow.   Also, Longhorns had a reputation for producing tougher, stringier, and less appetizing meat.

To the steak connoisseur, the rib-eye is a choice cut, taste of which comes from the marbling of fat around the steak.   Sure, there is fat around a Longhorn ribeye, just not very much.  Longhorn beef cooks quickly due to its low fat content.    The less fat, the quicker the cooking time.  It’s very easy to overcook meat that is lean and when you overcook it, it toughens up.   The “old-time” cowboys knew the trick was to eat their Longhorn steaks rare.  But as America became more urban, the knowledge of how to cook very lean meat all but vanished and the ads from meat packing companies advertising the “better” beef didn’t help.  We know today not only that Longhorn beef is leaner than that of other breeds, it is also lower in saturated fats.  Longhorn beef even has less cholesterol and calories than chicken, a very healthy meat.

Strike Three-Cattle Tick Fever

It is ironic that one of the strengths of the Longhorn was also a cause of its near extinction.  Fever in cattle is carried by ticks and, unlike other breeds, the Longhorns had developed immunity to this disease.  In the good old days, when Longhorns were moved along cattle trails during the great drives, the ticks dropped off and found local cattle to feed on.  In this way, the ticks transmitted the deadly disease that would decimate entire herds.   It took a little time but ranchers soon realized that tick or Texas fever as they called it, was somehow related to the Longhorns.  They didn’t know the how of it, but they knew the results:   the loss of their herds of valuable Angus, Herefords, and Shorthorns.

Longhorns were disease carriers that no one wanted.  Soon, cattle drives were met with armed resistance.  This led to an event recorded in Western history as the “Winchester Quarantine”.   Texas Panhandle cattlemen, Charles Goodnight of the JA Ranch and Orville Nelson of the Shoe Bar Ranch, posted cowhands armed with Winchester rifles at their southern boundaries to keep out tick-infested South Texas Longhorns.  The cowhands were armed with Winchesters.   Goodnight warned the drivers, “You will not treat this as idle talk.   I simply say you will not pass through here in good health.”    Years later, movie and TV Westerns would draw on this event for some of their stories.

It’s Almost Too Late

As ranchers began the transition to other, more profitable cattle breeds, they sent most of their Longhorns off to slaughter.    However, some did retain a few Longhorns to try to crossbreed with the more valuable cattle in hopes that they could combine the desirable attributes of both.  This hybridization further led to the decline of pure Longhorn stocks.   Eventually the remaining pure Longhorns were sent to slaughter or died.   Mostly, they were just bred out of existence.

However, there were a few cattlemen who saw that the Longhorns were disappearing and started to bring some of the best they could find to their ranches.   They were sometimes hidden on remote parts of the ranch to prevent scorn from neighbors who scoffed at the “relics.”        A total of six ranchers, Butler, Marks, Peeler, Phillips, Yates and Wright saved what was thought to be the last pure Longhorns.   They kept their other cattle separate so there were no mixing of the herds.   These ranchers were diligent and strict purists in breeding, record keeping and maintaining their Longhorns.    This created six isolated gene pools.   All Longhorns alive today come from these six gene pools plus one more, the WR herd.

The Government Steps In with the WR Herd

In 1927, conservationists and historians asked Congress for money to establish a federal herd of purebred Texas Longhorn cattle with the object of saving Western Heritage.  The cattle were supposed to be established in the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge located in Southeast Oklahoma as a “for show herd” to allow tourists to see and photograph.  Three thousand dollars were appropriated for the task.  It was also supposed to have been be easy to assemble the herd, as at one time there had been somewhere between four and six million Longhorns in Texas alone.   However, it did not turn out to be so easy.

For several years, two U.S. Forest Service rangers searched South Texas and Northern Mexico for Longhorns.  They inspected over thirty thousand head of cattle and found only twenty cows, three bulls, and four calves (two bulls and two heifers).   Those found did not include any from the six other herds then known to exist.      This became the basis for what would eventually be known as the WR (Wildlife Refuge) herd and would become the seventh gene pool.    The search continued and a few years later, two more Longhorns were bought from Zunigas Y. Cia of Monterey Mexico for sixteen dollars each.     Shipping was more than seven times the value of the animals and one of them later had to be discarded as there were indications of a Jersey cattle bloodline.   Strict conservation of the breed was and as is the mandate of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge and this herd is highly regarded due to its pure and strict Longhorn lineage and distinctive conformation.

Longhorns2MerleGrabhorne

 Meat Packers wanted “good” beef and not Longhorn beef

(Saturday Evening Post Ad  1927 Authors Collection)

The Turnaround

About 1943 the-refuge herd had increased and the Forest Service began to hold annual sales of surplus animals. The six other herds sold a few of their Longhorns beginning about this time as well.  At first, Cowmen purchased them as curiosities, but interest began to grow.   New herds began to appear and gained recognition.  Two these were the SPEAR-E  herd which Elvin Blevins of Wynnewood, Oklahoma started in 1952 (primarily from WR and Yates stock), and the Ox-Yoke T herd bred by Ken Humphrey of Okreek, South Dakota in 1950 (50 percent Niobrara  Refuge, 25 percent WR and 25 percent Yates).

In 1964, a small group of cattlemen banded together to preserve the unique heritage of these and started the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association.  The mission was to maintain a pure breed registry and to increase the population.     Although interest was renewing, there was still danger to the Longhorns.   When Milby Butler, one of the breeders, died in 1971, the Longhorns on his ranch were rounded up and sold.  Some 80 percent of his cattle were never accounted for said to be sold for slaughter.  The remaining 20 percent were scattered among different breeders who had been fortunate to hear that they were for sale.   This led to the almost total destruction of one of the last Longhorn gene pools.    Today, it is estimated that only 5 percent of existing Longhorn cattle have the Butler Bloodline.

As time passed, interest continued to grow even more and today, every Longhorn carries registration papers similar to those of American Kennel Club show dogs.  Most present day Texas Longhorn cattle are descended from those seven families, each of which had its own distinctive attributes. To a Longhorn cowman today, it is vitally important to have an understanding of an animal’s pedigree and the degree to which it has been genetically influenced by one or more of those families.  DNA testing is often performed to insure that a bull or cow falls in the acceptable range to be a true Longhorn.

Today, Longhorns are far from the “worthless relics” they once were.  Their numbers have grown since the 1920’s to well over three hundred thousand today.  Although  cattle for the WR refuge were purchased for $16 dollars apiece (about two-hundred twelve dollars in 2015) today, a Longhorn with outstanding genetics can fetch upwards of forty thousand at auction with a record price for a cow of one-hundred seventy thousand dollars.

Longhorns are once again being raised for their “healthier” meat which is often seen in organic grocery stores.  Ranchers prize these cattle on their ability to live on marginal pasture land.  So, if you happen to see a true Longhorn, you are seeing a real piece of American history that was almost lost.   From trash to distinction, not bad for worthless old relics.

Author’s Biography:

Merle Grabhorn is a rancher living in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. And like many ranchers, has an interest in cattle, horses, and Western History. Like all ranchers, he diversifies so Row Crops such as Wheat or Soybeans are part of the Ranch Economics. Of course he feels, part of Ranching is attending State Fairs and other venues to show cattle or horses, enhancing the value of the herd.

Shown below, Merle with his favorite Paint Horse: “Radified” or “Rad” for short. Rad is a Registered Paint, Registered Pinto, and is an APHA Breeders Trust Horse.  In competition and shows, Rad has won over 300 awards, including a number of Grand and Reserve Championships. He has been in Multiple National and World Championship competitions where he has won recognition and awards.

MerleGrabhorn2

The article by Merle, about the History of Longhorn cattle, is mostly from research– coming from an interest in starting a herd of Longhorns. The herd hasn’t been established….yet. Only the future knows.

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