Longhorn enthusiasts who gathered last weekend in the Southern Plains celebrated a breed as prized for its dramatic horns and hides as for its meat during three days of championship shows, futurities and educational sessions.
During one of the workshops held in conjunction with the annual gathering of the International Texas Longhorn Association, legendary breeder Darol Dickinson, who ran cattle in eastern Colorado for 30 years before moving to eastern Ohio in the mid-1990s, shared strategies for profitability and marketing success.
In ways unrivaled by most other breeds, longhorns lend themselves to diversification. Dickinson’s business is comprised of raising and selling registered breeding stock as well as exhibition steers, processing cattle into various meat products at five different custom processors and meat canneries, and selling thousands of cleaned and decorated skulls that bring as much as $6,000 a piece.
He also charges visitors admission to ride around his pastures in old school buses looking at the cattle.
Asked why he remains enamored with Longhorns after more than 50 years, he said, “When all of your neighbors think you’re an idiot, that’s good, because you’re going to have that business all to yourself.”
He began his talk by showing a customized invoice sheet he created and recommending anyone who sells livestock put as much detail as possible in writing at the time of sale.
“There was a day and age when a handshake was as good as gold, but it’s not that way anymore,” he said to an audience at the Enid, Okla., fairgrounds, where the event was held. “Good paper is what holds everything together. I have an extensive checklist I go through and that helps avoid misunderstandings.”
On the paper, he notes items like fertility, health and temperament, whether the animals are halter-trained and the terms for semen rights, boarding and delivery.
Under the heading of “location management,” he addressed moving his ranch from Colorado to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
“In Colorado, I could see that the golf courses were doing fine, but the farms and ranches were losing their water,” he recounted. “I could read the writing on the wall. Land values were going up, even though the water was going down. I wanted to go somewhere I would never need irrigation pipe.”
Where he’s at now gets around 50 inches of rain a year compared to 11, he said.
That’s not to say making such a dramatic mid-career change was easy.
“We pulled up fences and pipes and equipment and people. It was the hardest thing we ever did, but also the best thing,” he said. “Location management might be a decision you have to make.”
The historical significance and iconic image of the Longhorn breed attracts a lot of newbies to the industry, so Dickinson took pains to emphasize the need to think strategically about production resources, such as leasing versus buying land.
“At one time we leased over 20,000 acres from Granada up into Kiowa County. In Colorado, it was cheaper to lease land than to buy it,” he said. “In Ohio, it’s just the opposite. We found we could buy land cheaper than we could rent it. Everybody has to decide on things like that to fit their own business.”
In Colorado, he could use spent brewers’ grain as cheap feed; in Ohio, it’s possible to get surplus skittles from a candy factory and tub-grind it, cardboard box and all, along with low quality hay.
“Be open to opportunities. Anytime you can produce a cow for $200 or less, you’re on your way to making money,” he said.
Dickinson also passed around a 28-ounce can of fully cooked beef chunks, priced at $11.50 each, which he sells by the case to boat shops, pawn shops and business people who hand them out as gifts.
Cull cows that have been browsing on thorny locust and other Ohio brush are high in omega 3 fatty acids, so he makes sure to mention it on the can as an appeal to health conscious consumers. The label also proudly proclaims it a product of the USA.
Neal and Dee Dee Strauss, a couple from Stillwater, Okla., who came to the session, said they’ve invested in Dickinson Cattle Company genetics over the years but would never consider processing or consuming any of their animals.
“I like to say you can eat a longhorn steak and enjoy a nice meal, but the animals we raise will give you a lifetime of happiness,” Dee Dee said with a smile.
After years of training quarter horses, she switched to Longhorns and believes they are even smarter. Her husband said he had watched a cow rescue a calf that fell into a pond by gently lifting it out with her horns.
The couple has a small herd and sells individual cattle that are tamed, halter-broke and sometimes broke to ride. People buy them as pets, for parades and to use in TV commercials.
“To know them is to love them,” Dee Dee Strauss said. “For us, it’s a labor of love.”
Matt Menchata, of Houston, one of the certified judges for the championship show, said while Longhorns have a reputation as fodder for rodeos and parades, consumer interest in leaner meat has given the breed a boost.
“For the longest time they were being bred for yard art, but lean beef is getting to be the standard now. And we’re still in the early stages of that trend,” he said.
He recently judged a show in Maryland and said Longhorns were popular in that region because they are used to calve out young dairy heifers.
“I’ve never had to pull a calf,” he said. “Not a single time.”
The unique constellation of traits means Longhorns have value beyond the commodity market, he added.
“They are judged by a different standard, not just on how much milk they produce or how much they weigh at a certain age,” he said. “Our breed organization is still pretty small but it’s growing. There are more kids involved with it now than when I was a kid.”
As the convention activities were winding down, Kristi Grove and her family were getting ready to make the 20-hour drive home to Bailey, North Carolina. They brought several cattle to enter in the show and were transferring a couple of cow-calf pairs to new owners who were also at the event.
Earlier in the day their daughter Leah participated in the pee-wee showmanship contest. Now she and two friends were making snow angels in the fine dirt covering the show barn floor.
“Being here is like a family gathering for us,” Grove said.