Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Size Matters: The Last of the Longhorn Trilogy

Those who raise Herefords, Angus or one of many breeds of cattle think size matters. Longhorns tend to be as much as twenty-five percent smaller than Herefords or Angus. Since cattle are raised to produce beef and sold by the pound to the packing plant, assuming you start off by paying the same amount per head for Longhorns as you do the other breeds, it just makes sense to raise the heavier animals. Right?

Wrongo. What some ranchers overlook is that they are not selling beef. They are selling grass. They just ship it to market in a beef container. And how efficiently a bovine converts grass to beef is very important. So the question isn’t how many head of cattle you put on any given pasture, it’s how many pounds you put on that pasture and how many pounds you have at market time.

I submit that if you put the same number of pounds of Longhorns on a given pasture they will return the same amount, or more, beef as their bigger cousins. They graze more efficiently because nature taught them to survive on marginal forage. They are more heat tolerant so they will continue to graze through many a hot day. You drive through cattle country when the thermometer is topping eighty degrees and you’ll see cattle resting under shade trees or on the shady side of buildings and down in shady draws. They’ll stay there until it cools off. But not Longhorns. They’ll be on their feet, grazing the grass or browsing the brush. Oh, and by the way, most Herefords and Angus don’t browse. They’re too persnickety. They only use the brush for shade.

Longhorns also handle going without water better than most other breeds.
A good friend who grew up on a Herefords operation decided to raise a few Longhorns for old times’ sake. He liked the looks of them, appreciated their roll in the history of the cattle industry and just thought it would be fun to own a couple. What he learned the first summer was that the Longhorns would graze to the far corners of one of his hilly pastures, several miles from water. That grass had never been grazed by his Herefords. They wouldn’t get that far from water. Within a few years he strictly ran Longhorns.

One other complaint from the Hereford and Angus people is that Longhorn calves are too small and take too long to mature. They do take longer to mature. Up to six months longer than the others. Some creative Longhorn breeders have gone to leasing their yearling steers to ropers for the season. They take them back a few months later, put them on pasture for sixty or ninety days and they are ready for feed lot. And studies have shown that it is useless to feed Longhorns beyond ninety days. They just won’t gain enough weight to justify the feed costs. Unlike Herefords and Angus which require at least one hundred twenty days on feed.

As to smaller calves, that too is correct. Longhorn calves are born in the forty to fifty pound range where Herefords and Angus are usually in the sixty plus range. But there is an advantage to that. Longhorn herds typically show a higher calving percentage than the other breeds. In other words, they have a higher percentage of live births.  More calves means more cows to put on pasture. Which means more pounds of beef produced. By the time it all shakes out they convert that grass more efficiently and at lower cost.

And you rarely hear of a Longhorn rancher having to pull a calf out of its mother at birth, a common occurrence on a Hereford ranch.  If they don’t have to worry about bad weather many Longhorn breeders actually get a good night’s sleep during calving season. Yes, size does matter, but smaller can be better.

One last misconception. Longhorns are mean and dangerous. Sure, those Longhorns who trailed up from Texas after the Civil War were kinda gnarly. But don’t forget, they had been running wild for many years. I have personally walked and ridden horseback through over a hundred herds of Longhorns from Texas to Canada and Florida to California. I’ve never been hurt unless you count the time I bent over to take a photo and stood up under a big old steer whacking my head on his horn. But it was okay, the steer survived.

I guess you can tell; I like Longhorns. I could go on and on. But I’ve probably told you more than you want to know already and haven’t even talked about the romance of the business. But now you know why I use Longhorns in my stories.

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Talk with you down the trail.


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