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BEEFMASTERS: THE FERTILE COW

 

The Beefmaster breed of cattle is many things. It is, of course, a breeding program, a source of bulls for Ranchlands’ commercial cows and other commercial producers, a harbor of genetic diversity, and an archive of almost a century of careful selection, carried out partially by humans, and largely by the forces of Nature. The Beefmaster also represents a deep history, a philosophy of raising cattle, and more broadly a philosophy of how humans best fit into their lives buried within wild landscapes. Still, it is the Beefmaster cow herself, above all else, who lies at the core of the Beefmaster breed, and all that it stands for. No tribute to the Beefmaster breed would be just without pausing a moment to appreciate the cow, and all of her essential qualities.

Of all the diverse classes of cattle we have on the Chico–yearlings, bulls, steers, opens, heifers–I think our mother cows work the hardest. While the bulls only work for a couple short months to breed, the mother cows work tirelessly for the majority of the year, be they breeding, carrying a calf to term, or providing milk and protection for a calf through weaning, sometimes longer. In the case of the Beefmaster breed, cows begin their work at an early age, too.

In 1949, Tom Lasater began requiring every one of his Beefmaster cows two years of age and older to birth and wean an acceptable calf every year, with no exceptions. Any cow on the ranch that did not meet this standard were removed from the herd. The Beefmaster breed was developed as a herd in actual range conditions, not as an individual females selected in a false environment such as a feedlot. Our cow herds are at times exposed to tough conditions, just as the wildlife, and only the best females reproduce. It’s not the corrals where the real selection happens, but in the natural environment, where the genetics are truly put to the test of Nature.

Fertility (a high conception rate through a short breeding season) and mothering ability are crucial to a successful cattle operation. Open cows are the most expensive thing on a ranch, as they continue to consume valuable grass without producing anything in exchange. Additionally, the value of an open cow decreases over 50% compared to a pregnant cow. One of the most important traits of the Beefmaster cow is thus her fertility. Beginning at the age of two, the females must breed successfully in a short 60-day breeding season, competing within a large herd of cows among multiple sires. Even more impressive of the Beefmaster cow is their ability to calve out in the pasture, alone and unassisted. While we do keep a close eye on our first-year heifers who have not been through the process of birthing or mothering before, our Beefmaster cows calve completely unassisted in the pasture. Through the careful breeding that began with the Lasater family, dystocia (calving difficulty) has essentially been bred out of the cows, just as it has been eliminated by natural selection in many wild mammals.

I recall on several occasions going out to check the Beefmaster herd here at the Chico, and arriving at a water tank, busy with traffic in the midday heat. I see a beautiful Beefmaster cow, with long curved horns, slick red hide and a white belly, licking off a tiny calf lying on the ground next to her, with identical hide coloring. The calf could not have been more than a few hours old, still unsure of how to properly use its legs, but healthy nonetheless. Standing next to the calf, behind the cow, was a yearling heifer, again, with identical hide color, and a nice set of horns beginning to emerge. Though I can’t be sure, I can only assume what I saw was a cow, the calf she just birthed, and her heifer calf from the previous year. Though weaned naturally by the extreme cold in winter or by the birth of her half sister, the maternal bond had not been lost to the yearling heifer, still maintaining a relationship with her mother, and now her young sibling. Three generations of the Ranchlands Beefmaster, they stood as a genetic tree, a phylogeny of cattle improving and adapting with each season of breeding.

The heifers we will keep have been selected by nature; only the heifers that breed and calve remain in the herd as the new generation to replace the mother cows that did not reach the threshold of fertility, hardiness, mothering ability, and conformation. By contrast, most other breeding programs select female replacement heifers visually. By retaining a large group of high-quality replacement heifers every year and returning them to the herd, any older cows that do not come up bred or have issues calving can be removed from the herd and sold. This way, the herd is constantly improving, both genetically and economically, as we maintain a high standard for production through the most advanced genetics we have: yearling replacement heifers.

The key to developing a herd with the fertility and mothering capabilities of the Beefmaster is matching the cattle to their range environment. “Part of the magic of the cattle business,” Tom Lasater wrote, “is developing a valuable herd of cows that performs in your environment and in your management scheme, by using your environment to shape your cattle.” The two key pieces to matching cattle to the range environment then, are (1) breed selection, and (2) defining the task the cattle are to perform in their environment, then holding them to a certain standard (in this case, that standard is production). The yearly addition of young replacement heifers to the herd and the removal of older animals that do not breed allows the herd to be highly adaptable to different environments. Big Duke calls our Beefmasters “thrifty desert cattle,” and they have succeeded on multiple properties that Ranchlands manages, in multiple types of grassland and shrubland environments.

The Beefmasters have been living at the Chico for nearly twenty years now, and have woven themselves seamlessly into the fabric of the food web. Our pure-bred and crossbred Beefmaster cattle have been able to flourish in other environments, too, with much less time to adapt. The Chico is comprised mostly of native shortgrass prairie, with large areas of sand sagebrush ecosystems as well. Our cattle thrive here. The Medano-Zapata Ranch sits in a unique and extremely dry intermountain valley, comprised of mixed grass and shrubs, where some pastures are very sandy, where the winter nights can be brutally cold. Our cattle thrive here, too. The MP Ranch is rocky, scrubby country in the foothills of central New Mexico, where the cattle must weave through a difficult maze of pinyon-juniper to find the best feed. Here too, our cattle thrive.

In all of these various environments, the Beefmaster cow’s fertility and hardiness are put to the test out on the range, and even as they are forced to quickly learn the wisdom of new landscapes on the ranches we manage, high quality production is never compromised. Grazing management and pasture rotations are not the only tool we have to manipulate disturbance to grass communities as ranchers. The breed of cattle we choose to raise and live with is also a tool. In the case of the Beefmaster, we rely on their hardiness to protect the more fragile areas, riparian zones and creek bottoms, where other cattle might be more inclined to stay put and overgraze all the convenient grass.

Whether she is aware of it I can’t say, but the Beefmaster cow is a conservationist, and a humble one at that. With their unknowing hardiness, they are the keystone instrument of disturbance, who with each step imposes a critical ecological process upon the land, at the minute scale of a blade of grass ripped with each tongue-wrap and sweep of her head. In whatever environment she is assigned her duty of production from the role of keystone herbivore, a task indigenous to the grasslands of North America, the Beefmaster cow faithfully fills her niche.

Ranchlands’ mission of conservation is two-fold: to conserve the working landscapes we call home, and to conserve the historical traditions of ranching that we perform and pass on, the local heritage that lends meaning to the work we do every day today. Suitable, protected land will always be a prerequisite for range cattle production to carry on. But after all, ranching cannot persist without cattle. More specifically, ranching as an industry (and therefore ranchers) will be reliant on cattle that are able to survive and breed in environments that may be radically different than the ones we are familiar with today. Environments that are well-known to us now, but that may have evolved in unpredictable and unfamiliar ways. The ranching culture is an occupational one – and our occupation is producing livestock. So, in a time when environments around the world and their climates, especially in the American Southwest, are already beginning to change rapidly and dramatically, the best blueprint for the survival of the rancher species will be to raise cattle that are bred to adapt, and might be able to survive, so that we can too.

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