Raising Longhorns a mix of novelty and economy

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
John and Carol Dvorak recognize the American heritage of the Longhorn cattle they raise by welcoming visitors to their farm southwest of Marion.

The Dvoraks see their colorful cattle as a bit of living American history so close to the Chisholm Trail and cowtowns Longhorns helped make famous.

But among the things they value most about their purebred 60-cow herd Texas Longhorn cattle is the “good night’s sleeps” they get during calving season when other cattlemen are checking for cows and heifers having trouble giving birth to calves. They never have to pull calves to assist the birthing process.

Longhorns are known for a desirable trait known as “calving ease.” John said calves are born at a moderate 60 to 65 pounds with a slender head and form that easily traverses the birth canal.

In 13 years with Longhorns, the Dvoraks have only had to assist one cow, and that was a breech birth.

It’s something John helps promote not only as a producer but as longtime president of the “Best of the Trails Spring Show” which occurs annually in Kingman under the auspices of the Missouri-Kansas International Texas Longhorn Association.

After birth, the Longhorns show the vigor of their heritage by getting up and eating in 15 minutes, where it takes a regular calf a couple of hours, John said. That was an important trait when Longhorns had to survive natural predators.

Breed characteristics

If you decide to tour the Dvorak operation, watch out for some low-key humor. As the visitor takes in the massive spreads of horns on these animals, Carol Dvorak might tell that many of the calves already have horns in the womb, and how a person needs ensure the horns are laid back in the right position for birth.

What turns out to be a little more true-but still unusual-are some of the Longhorn behaviors and characteristics.

Carol said: “They have nurseries. You’ll see a group of several calves with two or three cows watching over them. If there’s a problem with the babies, or wolves, coyotes or dogs get after them, the nursery cows start up a holler, and all the mothers respond thundering in with their horns ready for the fight.”

She showed a 1946 drawing from Texas of a Longhorn cow that has a newborn calf tossing an attacking wolf high in the air while other wolves back away.

John verified from personal experience that the picture is accurate. The Dvoraks had some problem with dogs in a leased pasture near Marion County Lake. One dog that went in with the cows was tossed high in the air just like the wolf in the picture, John said.

John said Longhorns are so disease resistant that they save their owners time and money on treatment.

“If a veterinarian had to depend on Longhorns to make a living, he’d starve to death,” he said.

Carol said Longhorns are a thinking breed.

“They’re smart,” she said. “If you open a gate with a little gap in it, a cow will use a horn to swing it open to go through.”

At the same time, the Dvoraks find the Longhorns gentle to work with. They assign each one a name, and walk freely among them. Some animals in the group appear to relish being petted or massaged at the horn base.

Immigrant roots

The Longhorns started as crosses from wild European cattle and African cattle brought with invading Moors into Spain. The Spanish first introduced them to America right after Christopher Columbus’ discovery in 1493.

Strayed and abandoned cattle of these prototype went into the creation of millions of Texas Longhorns on the southern prairie where their hard hooves and lethal horns equipped them for survival.

In breed literature, Longhorns’ survival-of-the-fittest history resulted in strong health, high fertility, good teeth, disease resistance and body soundness.

They were unique for their abilities to walk long distances, live off the land, protect themselves, swim rivers, survive desert heat and to survive winter snow.

With a population between 3 million and 4 million head in Texas by 1865, these traits made Longhorns the right thing at the right time for the cattle drives by southern cowboys into railhead towns near here, such as Abilene, Newton and Dodge City.

Carol said the railhead towns moved west following railroad development with the first real cowtown actually at Sedalia, Mo.

In 1900, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated the nation’s cattle population at 60 million, most of which contained a base percentage of Longhorn blood.

Longhorn cattle provided the native base for “breeding up” to purebred status for other breeds from imported European and Asian stock.

Longhorns nearly became extinct because of the crossbreeding and because their naturally lean meat didn’t fit the need for profitable tallow for candles, soaps, lubricants and cooking.

Early producers saved the breed in part by getting the U.S. government herd established in 1927 at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge at Cache, Okla.

Longhorn lovers want to see more of the cattle in national preserves, considering them at least as much a part of American wildlife as the mustang horse.

Natural endowments

According to Carol, Longhorns seem built for movement.

“At one pasture we have south of Hillsboro, it’s a mile across. If the Longhorns start moving, we can’t catch up with them.”

John said although he hasn’t had much problems with it, Longhorns can jump with the ability of wild animals. In one instance, cows began going in and out over a fence on a regular basis. He solved the problem by putting a wire 6 inches higher.

Getting into the business

John was an experienced cattleman when he and Carol began working with Longhorns in 1991. He had worked in various capacities for Jim Donahue of Marion County for 15 years, including a decade with Brangus cattle.

John showed his expertise in building cattle pens and equipment before leaving that job and a home 10 miles east of Marion for the current family location on five acres.

John was working at Hay and Forage in Hesston when a coworker and friend, Jonathan Hauck, began telling him about the health benefits of eating lean Longhorn meat and the healthful hardiness of the cattle. John ended up buying two or three head of Longhorns that “kept having babies.”

Then he compounded the business growth by buying 32 head at a dispersal sale at Dodge City. Suddenly, they had 40-some cows on the small acreage and an urgent need to rent additional pasture.

This built into a business where the Dvoraks not only found themselves selling breeding stock and homegrown beef processed at Burdick, but also sold a majority of their calves as weanlings for rodeo stock. The beginning-to-grow horns that help hold a rope and agility make Longhorn calves favorite cowboy challenges.

The Dvorak children-Sherry and Derick of Salina, and Darrin of Springfield, Mo.-stay involved by helping with such jobs as sorting and vaccinating Longhorns when they visit.

Unique color patterns

Early-on, Carol found herself intrigued by the color patterns of the Longhorns-brindles, red roan, blue roan, creamy browns, and even once in a while a purple roan with the color coming from a mix of red and blue roan hair. Her favorite is a dark reddish color.

“It’s so pretty like a prairie fire, starting dark red at the bottom and then lightening up to brighter red at the top,” she said.

A current herd favorite is a black and white spotted cow named Violet that also illustrates an added colorful attraction of Longhorns called “mealy mouth.” Basically, this is a break in color pattern that rings the nose with a solid color for the nose and mouth-end.

For Violet, the color pattern breaks from a black-on-white spotted pattern to a white ring around the nose and a solid black nose.

The color issues raises another facet of Longhorn calving habits. The Dvoraks usually have little trouble finding most newborn crossbred calves. But looking for newborn well-hidden Longhorn calves is “like going on an Easter egg hunt.”

Valuable horns

John and Carol also hope to capitalize on saving the skulls and horns of all cattle they process. John recalled one of the more impressive horn spreads he has seen at Fort Worth, Texas. It measured 110 inches from tip to tip, not counting the curves in between.

There are Longhorn tip-to-tip horn-length competitions.

Carol said bulls actually tend to have proportionately shorter horns. If the bulls are castrated, this changes. Steers develop the longest horns because they tend to put more of their dietary protein into horn development, she said.

Breeders now are favoring a horn shape with the horns going straight out with a slight turn up at the ends, essentially a “masculine” type of horn shape.

The Dvoraks prefer a more “feminine” type called the corkscrew shape, where the horns curve gently upward with a half-twisting corkscrew shape up at the ends.

Longhorn breeders can tell an animal’s horns are still growing by color striations, such as red marks in the horn.

One Longhorn producer sold a stuffed Longhorn head with horns for $16,000. John said the Dickinson Cattle Co. located in Ohio markets horns, skulls and parts to the point of saying “all that’s left is the moo.” The company even sells Longhorn tails mounted on plaques, he said.

Longhorn breeders are attempting to select breeding animals for horn shape and size, but the Dvoraks feel most of the rules of genetics are against them being successful with it.

The Longhorn diet

John said he has found it takes less feed to produce lean, low-fat, low-cholesterol Longhorn beef. He only feeds a slaughter animal grain for a couple of weeks prior to processing because that’s all that is required for the limited fat marbling in the meat.

The cows get by on less pasture, and they eat a higher proportion of broadleaf plants than most bovine breeds will-including such pests as ragweed, he said.

“You can get just as profitable a calf off a 900-pound cow as you can off a 1,200-pound one, and she doesn’t eat as much,” he added.

“These are cattle that survived for years and years in the wild with nobody to take care of them. They were free. They had to eat what was available, and they survived.”

Breeding and longevity

John said he has ample evidence of the Longhorn’s reputation for breeding ability and life longevity in his herd history, too.

While most breeds bred back once a year, Longhorn cows often breed back every 10 months with nine months gestation. Dvorak often has left bulls in full time, so cows breed back continually.

One cow that made it to 20 years old before she was culled from the herd sometimes had two calves within the same year, often breeding back every nine months. Dvorak figured over her lifetime that cow produced three more calves for the same time span than a cow of any other breed-assuming another cow would have lived so long.

One cow named Old Ugly-because of a horn that turned after freezing and a tail that had frozen-stayed in the herd to the age of 21.

Violet has been with the herd since 1993, and the current oldest cow, Tinkerbell, dates from either 1989 or 1990.

Even though Longhorns are sold for other purposes, meat production remains their primary function, John said.

Selection over the years has made a Longhorn breed with a filled-out heavy hind quarters as contrasted with some earlier types that were light in the back end.

The Dvoraks are preparing for a September sale at Passaic, Mo., where a number of cross-breeding-grade beef herd producers will come for cows to breed especially to Angus bulls, John said. These producers usually cut the horns off.

John said the polled or hornless, genetic trait of the Angus will produce Longhorn-Angus crossbreds that are 95 percent polled, and 90 percent black. They will grade high on carcass characteristics.

One 50-head group of these black crossbreds recently topped the market at a local sale barn, he said.

John said Longhorns typically dress out at 55 percent of live weight with 45 percent waste while other breeds dress out at 50 percent because of more fat.

Ride on

Training Longhorns for riding has become another popular pastime. John said a person riding a Longhorn bull can ride into the midst of a herd without causing a stir like he would with a horse.

Enthusiasts ride Longhorns in parades and on the grand entries for rodeos and shows.

The only drawback to this is that nobody’s going to make a Longhorn gallop. John said the riding Longhorns usually just “plug along.”

The Dvoraks find them comfortable cattle to handle. Carol said she never feels qualms getting into a pen to work the cattle.

In short, they have found Longhorns fun to raise.

You can arrange a tour of John and Carol Dvorak’s Longhorn herd by calling them at 620-382-2067.

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