Longhorn of the Vanities

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

Peggy Dyer grew up in Texas, and three years ago, after she bought a house and land in north Scottsdale, she decided to buy herself a longhorn cow to decorate it.

So she and the man who is now her husband, Keith Brock, drove to Texas and picked out a little steer they thought was attractive. Then they rented a truck from Budget, loaded the steer and somehow drove it back to Phoenix before the smell of bovine waste overcame them.

Peggy was so innocent she called up the Department of Agriculture to ask if she needed to license her new animal, as you would a dog or a cat. The house whose backyard this longhorn would grace is near Scottsdale Road and Dynamite, in an area where signs sprout on Saturday mornings guiding people to model homes and development sites.

A former Aggie, Peggy had moved to Arizona after a bad divorce. She has a Texas accent, a warm openness and a mass of blond curls. She and Keith have been in and out of various businesses that have done well enough to net them a lovely old stone house on two and a half acres of land.

They've decorated the house with pictures and artifacts of the Old West, and blue ribbons the steer they named PK has won in shows.

Keith refers to PK as a 500-pound puppy, and nothing transpires this morning to contradict that description of the 3-year-old creature.

Peggy leads the way out to the corral containing the animal, which walks up to the fence after she shakes some feed in a can. Peggy scratches him on the head; he appears to enjoy the affection.

"I'd go out every night and talk to him and feed him apples," Peggy says with a laugh, describing the days after PK joined the family. "I'd go and sit down and lean on his shoulder and just talk. He'd put his head in my lap."

She even started a baby book covering PK's first months, and there is no escaping a careful perusal of its pages.

While this perusal continues, the real-life steer, this inheritor of all that was wild and woolly in the Kansas cow towns, eats the food in the can and curls upon the ground. His eyes are closed, and the head under the big horns is starting towobble. PK is about to doze off, like some bored business magnate feeling the effects of wine and a tedious after-dinner speaker.

Around the corral are tires and an old barrel. These are PK's toys. Sometimes Peggy will play chase with the steer. Sometimes at night, when she and Keith are in bed, they'll hear PK playing with his toys by himself in the corral.

PK's head is now on the ground. He is quite asleep. He looks just like the family pet the longhorn breed has become.

In the two decades after the Civil War, millions of head of cattle were driven north out of Texas to the Kansas railheads and shipped east. The animals were Texas longhorns, America's contribution to the bovine species, a breed of cattle that had developed in south Texas largely independent of human design.

Although Texas longhorns gave birth to the old Chisholm Trail, the cowboy and the myth of the Old West, sentiment has no place on the working ranch. Just as soon as they had marched most of the longhorns north, Texas cattle raisers replaced them with cows that were better at getting fat, fat being not only where the flavor is in meat, but where the profit is in ranching.

Longhorn, however, did not go the way of the dinosaur. It became an object of nostalgia. There was a government-sponsored effort to prevent its disappearance, and a show herd was installed on a wildlife refuge in Oklahoma.

Then, in the 1970s, longhorns began to be "discovered," much the way innocent mountain towns or funky artists' colonies are discovered, and by much the same people. Longhorn cows became the animals of choice for the guy who'd made his bundle and wanted some land to get away from the business that made him rich.

Mostly in Texas, but elsewhere in the West, too, longhorns became virtual lawn ornaments.

While any longhorn breeder can--and would love to--tell you how useful his animals are in the beef-cattle industry, it's mostly wishful thinking. Longhorns are a negligible factor in the cattle business, because they do not gain weight. The largest feedlot in Arizona will not even buy a longhorn cow, unless it is slipped in with a herd of other cattle.

Unlike Herefords, which are bred for qualities relating to beef production, longhorns are the equivalent of Miss America contestants, but without the talent requirement. A good Hereford is an animal that will gain weight. A good longhorn is an animal with long and twisty horns and a lively coloration.

Because longhorns don't produce beef, the market for them appears to be peculiar and artificial, and to consist largely of people who raise cows to sell to other people who raise cows.

There can be a great deal of money in that. In the early '80s, when prices were at their height, a cow from the herd raised at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma sold for $32,000, a price so completely unrelated to reality, even the man who bred the animal found it foolish.

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.

On the telephone, Darol sounds less like a good old boy and more like a slick marketer, at one point calling those long horns a "symbol of purity" and, in general, making his cows sound as if they can do everything but program your VCR.

Darol sidesteps the question of whether wild traits are being bred out of longhorns by launching into a discussion of Christopher Columbus, oxen as historical beasts of burden and the Biblical cattle of Bashan. The point seems to be that it's perfectly all right for animals to be adapted to fill the needs of humanity.

There was no longhorn "breed" before the Civil War. There were hardly any breeds of any kind, but rather just cows. Longhorns were mongrels, born of the mixing of wild Spanish cattle--left to fend for themselves after Texan independence--with the English breeds of new Anglo settlers.

The Civil War was important for the development of the breed, mainly because it kept everyone occupied so the cattle could reproduce in peace. When settlers rushed to Texas after the war ended, theyfound the place filled with longhorn cows--some estimates say five million of them.

Longhorns were no beauty-contest winners. "Slab-sided," the ultimate insult that can be hurled at a cow, was regularly applied. They were rangy and bony, with long faces, long legs and a big, goofy set of horns. The came in all colors--reds and browns, black or white, as well as speckled, freckled and spotted like a paint horse.

The creatures were feral, living in the brushy country between the Nueces and the Rio Grande, having adapted the wild animal's policy of laying low during daylight hours and browsing during twilight at morning and evening. Nobody owned them, and all a man needed to start a ranching operation was a branding iron and the patience to round up the cattle.

A few ranchers had already begun trailing the cows out of Texas to New Orleans or the gold fields of California, but the real push came after the war, when the railroad arrived in Kansas.

So much attention has been paid to the exploits of the cowboys who accompanied the cattle drives that the accomplishments of the longhorns themselves have been shortchanged. What they did was extraordinary.

While the cowboys had to pack their grub, the cows lived off the very grass they were traveling over. Longhorns are "thrifty" cattle, willing to eat just about anything that grows, and able to keep their weight up without a lot of it. On the trail, they sometimes had to go days without water, and sometimes had to swim rivers swollen with it.

J. Frank Dobie paid them a wonderful compliment in The Longhorns, his 1941 paean to the breed: "They furnished their own transportation, rustled their own forage, and asked no odds. On their way to the Pacific, they crossed deserts still feared by automobile drivers."

A lead steer always emerged on the traildrive. The most famous of these wasOld Blue, a blue roan owned by Charlie Goodnight who proved himself so valuable he was never slaughtered. If the lead steer crossed a river--even if it required swimming--the rest of the herd followed. Sometimes the hands would fasten a bell to the lead steer's neck. When the cattle heard the bell ring in the morning, they'd stand up, knowing it was time to go.

The heyday of the trail drives was the 1870s. By the turn of the century, longhorns had been replaced by English cows, and cattle ranching had exchanged the open range for fenced pastures and winter feeding.

By the 1920s, longhorns were almost extinct. Even Dobie's book sounds like an elegy to the breed. "The longhorn is of the past," he says flatly.

Today, more than 230,000 longhorns are registered with the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America. That doesn't account for cattle that haven't been registered or have signed up with a rival association. The credit for saving the breed goes to a number of ranchers in Texas, most descendants of early settlers who remembered the longhorns their daddies had raised.

A great deal of credit for the preservation of the breed also must go to the federal government.

In 1927, a Forest Service employee in Arizona named Will C. Barnes convinced the government to give him $3,000, and used it to travel around south Texas looking for the purest remaining specimens of the longhorn breed. The government eventually bought 30 head, which were shipped to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in western Oklahoma.

Over the years, the herd was culled of animals that gave birth to suspicious-looking offspring, and some animals from northern Mexico were added. The animals were blood-typed as recently as 1990, when one with Brahman and one with Durham blood were removed.

"This refuge is here strictly to preserve a cultural and historical resource," says Joe Kimball, the man in charge of the breeding program there.

"Ours are as close to the 1920s animals as possible."
He's trying to make them as close to the original longhorns as possible, too, going so far as to scrutinize pictures of herds bedded down around Dodge City in the 1870s.

"The pictures are in black and white, so it's hard to tell what's red," he says, "but you can tell black cows and white cows. There were very few black or white cows, very few with spots."

Because speckles and spots go over wellwith the hobbyists, today's breeders tend to select for thosetraits. The cows that went up the trail tended to be red, brown and earth tones, Kimball says.

Kimball treats his herd like a historical artifact, and deplores efforts to produce abigger, beefier animal. "Why they justdon't buy a Hereford isbeyond me," he says.

He's got the figures at his finger tips and runs a quick comparison between his herd and Darol's beefy longhorns. "Ours are longer headed, not quite as wide a-headed. They're not as heavy an animal--I'd say most of the cows here weigh anywhere between 950 and 1,150 pounds.

"A bull here will generally weigh 1,200 pounds average, where his are weighing better than a ton."

Could Darol's cattle go up the trail?
Kimball snorts. "They wouldn't. I'd almost betours would."
Actually, a media event called the Great American Cattle Drive provided a test case this summer. More than 250 longhorn steers traveled the 1,600 miles from Texas to Montana. They did itwith daily feed and water, veterinarians at their beck and call, and every Monday and Tuesday off. The family dog could do that.

Connie and Tom Liddle have a photo hanging in the dining room of their home west of Cave Creek. It was taken during their days as commercial cattle ranchers near Chinook, Montana, just south of the Canadian border. The photo shows a line of Herefords being trailed through a draw by cowboys on horseback.

"It was zero that day," says Connie with a laugh. So much for romance.
Cold, snow, uncertain beef prices and a desire to see what else life had to offer prompted the Liddles to move to Arizona in 1979. Now Tom drives a mail truck between Phoenix and Monticello, Utah, and Connie is the principal of Shadow Mountain High School. Five years ago, however, they began missing cows, and broke down and bought a longhorn. Now they have 15.

As Tom explains it, the skinniness of longhorns, although it has excluded them from feedlots, has worked to their advantage in one aspect of the commercial cattle business.

Because Herefords have been bred so big, their calves are now literally too fat to be born on their own. On their Montana ranch, the Liddles would have to pull the calves--literally pull them through the birth canal--of fully half the cows giving birth for the first time.

If a first-calf heifer is bred to a longhorn bull, however, she'll produce a calf with narrow shoulders and less weight, one that she'll be able to birth on her own. That saves ranchers the kind of round-the-clock baby-sitting they would otherwise have to do.

"If I were in the commercial cattle business today, I'd use longhorns for first-calf heifers," Tom Liddle says.

After that first calf, however, ranchers will usually breed the cow to a Hereford or an Angus bull. They want to produce the kind of calves feedlots prefer.

Lee Jernigan is not old enough yet to be called an old cuss, but the potential is there. Just at the moment, he's running his ranch by himself, because his help got on his nerves and he fired them all. It doesn't bother him in the slightest that other longhorn breeders run down his cows. He unabashedly admits, "I'm not considered a high-class longhorn herd."

Jernigan leases 26,000 acres south of Safford, in the shadow of Mount Graham. His commercial herd is your basic Hereford-Brangus cross, but he's also got 45 purebred longhorn cows.

Evangeline Jernigan moved here with Lee's father, Dee, in the '30s. The land, asit happened, had been surveyed by thesame Will C. Barnes as gathered the longhorns for the Wichita refuge. In 1944, Dee Jernigan bought some longhorns atthe refuge's annual sale, and the steers earned their keep by appearing in Marlboro ads and a couple of Hollywood movies.

The heads and horns of these animals are stacked up in a shed near the house, along with an old wagon that Dee brought with him when he moved to Arizona. There's also a photo of Dee with a team of longhorn oxen pulling a covered wagon along the main street of Safford in a parade.

"He treasured the old ways, and he'd lived them," says Dee's widow, Evangeline. Dee Jernigan had actually drivencattle in his day, when his family moved from New Mexico down into OldMexico in the early part of the century.

Dee died about ten years ago, and Evangeline still lives at the ranch house,while Lee and his family live at the farm Lee operates a few miles to the south.

The country around the ranch is what Lee calls chaparral--thickets of mesquite, dotted with prickly pear and cholla. The longhorns have the run of it, and the operation R>somehow seems reminiscent of what ranching must have been like in Texas in the last century. He still does the ranch work on horseback.

Lee doesn't feed the 45 longhorns, since they can browse for themselves, and consequently hasn't seen some cows all year. They'll reappear, or he'll find a skull like he did recently of a cow that turned up missing in the count two years ago.

Although his 45 longhorns are registered, Lee dropped out of the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America. "I do not hold with folks who are selecting forbeef," he explains. "I think they've changed the breed. They're trying to generate income. I'm just trying to preserve the breed."

Now he doesn't even know if he wants to do that. Jernigan no longer has a longhorn bull, and, for the past few years, he's been breeding the purebred cows to his commercial bulls.

So far, the beef-'em-up program hasn't worked so well. Unless you run longhorn cattle, their meat is hard to come by. And not that great.

Dave Matta, who owns a Mexican restaurant in Mesa, will sometimes use hamburger from his longhorns in his dishes. You can buy longhorn steaks in a couple of specialty groceries in Dallas. And a rancher named Steve Mobley, who raises longhorns south of Big D, has marketed ground beef to some restaurants in the Lone Star State.

But Mobley didn't even handle steaks until this year, and then only after coming up with a special feed mix for the cattle. And even he admits the marbling isn't as good as that in steaks from the fatter breeds.

Altogether, longhorns seem a bit like a product for which there is as yet no real use--except, of course, as large and decorative pets.

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