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Longhorn Cattle: The Living Symbol of the Old West

The man and the little girl leaned against the corral fence looking in at the cattle. 

“Are these the ones we want to buy?” the child asked. “I like their long twisty horns.”

“Yep. These are the ones we want. Their horns set them apart from other cattle. Notice how no two Longhorns are like. Colors and color combinations run the gamut from solid to speckled. I’m planning to leave this auction with a bunch of these Longhorns—some cows and at least two bulls. We’re starting us a Longhorn herd. You know these are the real Texas cattle.”

“What do you mean, Dad?”

“Well, their ancestors were the first cattle to set their hooves on American soil almost 500 years ago when the Spanish first arrived. The Spaniards brought their cattle from the South of Spain so they’d have hides, meat, and milk in their Catholic missions. Used ‘em to pull wagons, too. So Longhorns have had a long time to adapt to living here in Texas. They’re the cattle breed that started Texas ranching. In fact, your ancestors were Longhorn cow chasers back before the Civil War.”

“Why do you call them cow chasers?”

“Back then, there were plenty of wild Longhorns down in Mexico. Six generations ago our family came to Texas and saw the opportunity to gather some of the wild Mexican cattle, bring them back to Texas, breed them, then trail drive them to markets to satisfy a growing demand for meat across the country.  They had to hunt and chase the cattle to gather a herd. Learned how to handle them with the help of Mexican vaqueros or what we call cowboys today.”

“I want to be a rancher when I grow up.  Look at that brown and white speckled bull, Dad, how wide do you think his horns are?”

“He’s got about a six. . . or maybe seven foot span. About average for a mature bull. But I’ve seen horn spans as wide as nine feet. Looks like he might weigh about 1200 or 1300 pounds. Nice sized bull, a lot of good meat on him. One reason I want Longhorns is they’re fast breeders.  Heifers can conceive before they are six months old. Cows can deliver a calf every 11 months and do that long into their teenage years. That’s a lot of new cattle from one cow.”

“More cattle means more profits, right?”

“Yep, and profits mean we can stay in business. Another reason we want Longhorns is that over the centuries they’ve developed a natural resistance to common cattle diseases and they can avoid parasites like the screw worm. Guess you could say they even treat themselves for screw worms.”

“How do they do that?”

“Well, it’s kinda gross. When a Longhorn calf is born, blow flies lay eggs under the calf’s tail and in its navel. The cows lick ‘em off to keep from getting worms. If a cow gets infested and can’t reach the worms to lick them off, it’ll go stand in water for hours and drown the worms.”

“ Lick ‘em off! Yuck!” The girl wrinkled her nose.

With a laugh, the man said, “May sound yucky to us, honey, but it works for the Longhorns. Helps keep the cows healthy and veterinary bills down. We’re gunna raise our cows on grass, no chemicals or supplements for them.  That means we’ll have extra healthy beef. Longhorn meat is lean, tasty and a nice red color—lower in cholesterol than a skinless chicken breast—actually offers more nutrition per calorie than other beef.

“Dad, why aren’t there more ranches with Longhorns? The ranchers around us don’t raise Longhorns.”

“Well, let me tell you a bit more about the Longhorn’s history. As I said, before the Civil War, Longhorns were THE Texas cattle. When the war started, the men went to fight and the cattle ranged freely, so after the war, the men returned and found a vast number of cattle across the state. Estimates are as high as five million head.”

“WOW! That’s a bunch of cows.”

Yep, but these cows were worth only $3 to $4 a head in Texas; however, demand for beef in the eastern states was high and cattle could be sold there for 10 times the Texas price. This potential for profit started the era of large herds being rounded up and taken to market along routes like the Chisholm and Shawnee Trails. Giant ranches were started. For instance, at its peak, the Goodnight Loving Ranch in West Texas covered 1.3 million acres and grazed more than 100,000 cattle. Ranches spread onto the Great Plains grazing lands of Montana, Nebraska, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. Longhorns ruled the cattle industry. Of course, Texas Fever created some big problems.”

“What’s Texas Fever?”

“It’s a disease caused by ticks and it can kill cattle. Longhorns can spread it, but they are immune to it. As early as the 1850’s—out of fear for their cattle—ranchers in Kansas and Missouri had started blockades to keep Texas cattle drives out of their states and their state legislatures passed laws attempting to banTexas cattle. Got pretty nasty for awhile and many drovers diverted their herds. Finally, in the 1870s, railroads came to Texas and rail heads were created in the state for the shipping of cattle.

“What happened then?

“Barbed wire!  Barbed wire changed it all.  When the range was fenced by farmers and sheep ranchers, the free range was cut off. That limited access to water, shut off free grazing, and blocked the cattle trails to market. Imported cattle were brought in. Herds got smaller. Longhorns lost their popularity. I’m hoping that will change and that Longhorns will be in demand again for more than just dude ranches and show herds.”

A grin bloomed on the little girl’s face. “We’re trying to bring the Longhorns back. I like that.”

The man’s smile matched hers. “That we are, sweetheart, that we are. They’ve been overlooked for too long. The Texas Longhorn is a living symbol of the Old West. What do you say we go buy us a few?”

“Yes, sir! We better hurry. I can already hear the auctioneer.”