Longhorn of the Vanities

How hardy Texas cattle became prestige pets for the rich and nostalgic

While the tightening of tax regulations has made longhorn breeding somewhat less of a scam than it used to be, there are still plenty of people with "hobby herds" of fewer than ten cows.

The lives of these cows are not at all like the lives of animals in commercial herds.

"All of them have real names," says Bob Kropp, a professor of animal science at Oklahoma State University who's active in the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America. He grabs a registry book and begins reading these real names into the telephone: "Cat's Meow, Delta Flame, Plum Jelly, Red Rose"--these are cows' names!--"Little Brownie, Sissy L."

"They're treated just like family," Kropp says.

Charlene Semkin pulls her pickup truck into a pasture full of longhorns. Recognizing the truck, the animals start to slowly walk toward it. Pointing to their horns, Charlene says, "That's where your money is." Some horns point up in a jaunty semicircle, some face forward, some twist in a corkscrew.

"I like corkscrew," Charlene says, "but it's not so much the shape as there's a lot of it." In longhorns you apparently can't get too much of a good thing. Some animals will have spreads of 50 inches or more.

With her lively manner and mop of blond hair, Charlene knew that being easy to look at was a help when she was just starting out in a business dominated by men who thought women should be home cooking the noon meal. She prospered, until now she is the largest longhorn raiser in Arizona, with 125 cows at her ranch in Chino Valley, another 80 in Oklahoma, 300 in New Zealand, 50 in Australia and 50 in Canada.

The cows she raises are seed stock, breeding animals that are sold to other owners. She got into the business with one cow in 1974, and now supplies a number of markets: commercial ranchers who want bulls to crossbreed with their own animals, hobbyists who want something that looks nice, and ropers who take the leftovers to put in rodeos.

"I sell a lot of these cattle to people with five-acre yards in California who don't want to mow," she says.

A fair number of the animals wandering picturesquely around her land are not Charlene's at all, but cows she baby-sits for absentee owners on either coast.

"I have an attorney in L.A.," she says. "He has to be in L.A. to make money, but that doesn't take the cowboy out of him. So he puts his boots up on his desk and talks to his clients about his longhorn cattle."

To make himself an official rancher, the lawyer has also registered a brand in the state of Arizona. It is Charlene, however, who affixes it to the animal's hide, feeds the creature and walks in its manure. And sends the lawyer photos of his darling baby.

Darol Dickinson is the person other longhorn breeders are referring to when they say that "some people" are ruining the breed. Darol Dickinson operates a longhorn ranch on the plains of eastern Colorado.

Although he argues eloquently about the virtues of the lean meat longhorns produce, and refers to Herefords and their ilk as "greaseballs," Darol Dickinson has been the leader of the movement to develop a longhorn that knows how to gain weight.

While breeding among the original longhorns of the Texas brush country was a catch-as-catch-can affair in the 19th century, today's breeders have made it a science. The happy couple may not even see each other, since 80 percent of longhorn breeding is done by artificial insemination.

One longhorn breeder, in fact, pulls out a gray tank and says, "This is my bull barn." Inside, cooled by dry ice, is the semen of 20 to 30 bulls, stored in "straws." When the moment of consummation arrives, the contents of the "straw" are defrosted and placed in a large syringe with which the cow is inseminated.

For breeders trying to make money with their cattle, artificial insemination has one major advantage over nature. Because bull semen is sold on the open market, anyone with ready money has access to the best bloodlines in the country. Hence, artificial insemination can improve a herd extremely rapidly.

Darol Dickinson has preached the gospel of bloodline improvement the loudest.

A video Darol has released gives a look at the man who is one of the more controversial breeders of longhorns in the country today. He turns out to be a good old boy with white hair and glasses. Darol is wearing a Western shirt with snap buttons and is sitting in front of a collection of blue ribbons won bythecreatures whose semen youcan buy. He pronounces height with a "th" at the end and uses down-home phrases like "sorry bulls."

Using an old cow horn for a pointer, Darol discusses the various methods of improving the breed. He delves into the intricacies of line breeding for gainability, along the way dropping thenames of famous longhorn bulls, like Bail Jumper and his own Texas Ranger, and afamous cow with the unlikely name of Doherty 698.

Because feedlots depend on Herefords' propensity to eat much like humans confronted with a buffet, Darol is trying to produce a longhorn that will be equally gluttonous. On the video, he does not address the notion that this might be ruining the breed; he sweeps it aside.

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