Saturday, 8 February 2014

Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’…



Pure-blooded Texas Longhorn (photo courtesy David Karger)


Anybody remember the song by Frankie Laine?

One of my favorite TV shows growing up was Rawhide, a popular Western that ran from 1959 to 1966, starring Eric Fleming and a young Clint Eastwood. I loved Westerns, especially this one which was set in the late 1860s, depicting the grueling Texas Longhorn cattle drives from Texas to points in the northeast. Although they apparently didn’t use real Longhorn cattle in the filming of Rawhide, the show did introduce my Baby Boomer generation to a new Hollywood star in Clint Eastwood--before his string of Spaghetti Westerns--and to the iconic breed of cattle known as Texas Longhorns with its characteristic massive horns.

So what about these Texas Longhorns? As you will quickly see, their origins are steeped in history like no other animal on the planet.

One source states that the modern Longhorns are direct descendants of about 20 to 30 Portuguese-Spanish cattle picked up in the Canary Islands and brought to the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1493 when he landed on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola during his second expedition. For the next 20 years, the early Spanish colonists and explorers brought more European cattle to the Americas in several trips that arrived on the east side of Mexico and Central America. Two European longhorn breeds said to be involved were the Berrendas and the Retintos. Another source has the Texas Longhorns origins dating back to certain cattle--possibly of the all-black Andalusian variety--that roamed the open ranges and marshes along the Guadalquivir River Valley in the Andalusian Mountains of Spain. As the story goes, three bulls and 30 heifers from one of these herds were put aboard a ship and relocated to the Panuco River on the eastern coast of Mexico in 1521. Then they mixed in with the other breeds throughout that part of Mexico.

Whatever source is the gospel truth, or if both blended into one, historians are probably right about one thing. For the next couple centuries, the cattle were moved along through colonization--or roamed by themselves--into northern Mexico…then to what is now Texas. Somewhere down the line, they either escaped or were turned loose in Mexico or on the Texas grasslands to fend for themselves. By natural selection and survival of the fittest, the weak were weeded out. These ancestors of the Texas Longhorns toughened up, enduring winds, droughts, floods, heat spells and freezing weather to become a hearty breed resistant to disease and parasites, and were able to travel great distances in search of food and water. After centuries of natural interbreeding in the wilds, these self-sufficient hybrids had long legs, long horns, strong hooves, and came in a wide range of colors--yellows, browns, reds, grays, blacks, and specks. They also gained a reputation for being ornery, ready to use their horns on any approaching predator. Man or beast. Early settlers to Texas in the 1830s found these feral herds, and domesticated some individuals for draft animals and a source of beef.

After Texas gained statehood in 1845, thousands of these Longhorns were driven to California following the Gold Rush of 1849, fetching $20 to $30 a head. Other routes were set up for drives into Louisiana. That all stopped during the American Civil War. In the years 1861-1865, over 70,000 Texans joined the Confederate Army. General Robert E Lee of the Army of Northern Virginia thought very highly of their fighting abilities, especially those of General John Bell Hood’s Texas Brigade during fierce action at Gettysburg and Antietam. After the war, the surviving Texas soldiers returned to their homes with very few sources of income and a bleak future for themselves and their state. But they saw dollar signs in the millions of Longhorn cattle strewn about the state. So, they rounded them up in large herds and drove them north along the “Chisholm Trail” and the “Goodnight-Loving Trail” to such rail heads as Abilene and Dodge City, Kansas, to be sold for as much as $40 a head. The cattle were then shipped east to satisfy the growing demand for beef in cosmopolitan centers like Chicago and New York City.

This man-made migration of cattle from Texas to the Kansas rail heads was the largest man-made movement of animals in the history of the world. The cattle drives weren’t without their risks, of course. Stampedes were one, which could be brought on by a rattle snake, a loud sound, a barking roundup dog or even a drover coughing. But the drives could also be extremely profitable for owners of the herds. As a result, Texas replaced the King Cotton era of the pre-war South with a cattle empire, giving Texas a sound economy for years. Until the Oil Boom came after the turn of the century to help out even more.

Twenty years and approximately 10 million head of cattle later, the gravy train came to an end when new ranchers along the cattle trails set up barbwire fences to keep their own herds in. Also, more railroads were built across the country, making the massive Longhorn cattle drives redundant. These new ranchers preferred the fatter eastern cattle which were ready for slaughter sooner than the Longhorns which took longer to mature. Americans were now acquiring a taste for beef with higher fat content than what the Longhorns were offering. Because of their huge horns, Texas Longhorns were also difficult to pack into rail cars.

A few ranchers held onto their Longhorns, mostly for nostalgia. Into the 1920s, Longhorns were extremely close to extinction, until the US Congress came to the rescue in 1927 to create a nationally-protected herd at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. It’s a herd that is still used for stock today. Other herds were soon set up in state parks around the country. Due to such positive action and hard-working people, the Texas Longhorns survive today. They have been a registered breed since 1964, when the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America was established.

Longhorn herds are now raised throughout North America and Australia, and parts of Europe by ranchers who appreciate these gentle, intelligent animals for several reasons. While commercial cows live to approximately 10 years, and produce 5 or 6 offspring, Texas Longhorns can live 20 years or more, and produce a calf every 10-11 months. And they give birth with ease, too. In grazing, ranchers can place just as much or slightly more Longhorns per acre than the commercial cattle, simply because Longhorns will eat almost anything, while the commercial cattle can tend to be fussy. Longhorns have minimal health problems and are still resistant to disease and parasites, one of the many traits they picked up from their Portuguese-Spanish ancestors centuries ago. They can handle all kinds of weather…the cold of Canadian and Montana winters, the heat of Arizona deserts, and everything else in between. And they don’t need antibiotics or added hormones before they go to market.

With health-conscious diets the in-thing today, Longhorn beef is in demand. Its range-fed meat has low cholesterol. It’s tender and just as lean as chicken or fish. Who says red meat is bad for you? And I hear that Longhorn hamburgers are absolutely delicious! Their horns are desirable commodities going for $500-1000 and their hides for $400-700. Skulls go for $200 uncleaned up to $1000 if finished by a taxidermist.

Despite the obvious advantages to owning and/or consuming Texas Longhorn beef, some American organizations keep a close eye on the survival of this extraordinary breed of cattle. The Cattlemen’s Texas Longhorn Registry (CTLR) and its sister organization, The Cattlemen’s Texas Longhorn Conservancy (CTLC), are 2 such groups  dedicated in keeping the original Longhorn bloodline pure and free of quick profit cross-breeding that could place these impressive cattle in danger of extinction once again in the future.

Working with both these organizations in different capacities, Debbie Davis of Hondo, Texas, informed me recently that fewer than 3,500 real, true-blooded Texas Longhorns--registered and that they know of--are living in the United States and Mexico. These are the ones “genetically pure and historically correct,” as David Karger, an associate in the Longhorn business, likes to put it.

Karger also added, “The cattle industry was built on the backs of Texas Longhorns. They endured all that nature threw at them and are products of the environment, not selective breeding for one trait or another (color, horn size and shape, etc). When you look at these cattle in the early days of Texas, you will see an extraordinary animal. The mamas looked like hell simply because they gave all they had to their offspring. This is what natured intended.”

You can look up both organizations at www.ctlr.org and www.ctlc.org respectively. While you’re at your computer…why not take a gander at the Rawhide theme on YouTube, too, and sing along to Frankie Laine?

It would be a shame to see the Texas Longhorn--this symbol of the great American West--in its truest form up and disappear. We should be like the mamas and do everything to preserve this breed of cattle that has done so much for us.

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