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Original Issue

You Can Get Hooked On Longhorns

A breed that once defined us as a nation—spunky and a bit wild—but nearly died out, is coming back

The sun is going orange as it starts setting way up yonder over the bend in Onion Creek just outside of Dripping Springs, Texas. And H.C. Carter, who schemes multimillion-dollar deals by day in Austin but who owns this spread in the country and is a cowboy in his heart, is sitting on a rock, his spurs scraping its surface, his hat tipped back. It's a scene out of Norman Rockwell, just like the Texas Longhorn is.

Carter chews a toothpick and says, "The Longhorn is truly what this country is all about. They represent what cattle used to be like—and what people used to be like."

Indeed, just letting those two words roll off your tongue—Texas Longhorns—conjures up a panoply of memories and imaginings. Of Longhorns on the great cattle drives; of their dramatic appearances at rodeos, where cowboys try to rope them and ride them with marginal success; and certainly, of those glorious horns themselves. But perhaps most vivid of all, at least for college football fans, is the image of Bevo, the Longhorn mascot that represents the University of Texas at all its home games and is the inspiration for the cry "Hook 'em, Horns!" Fred Akers, the Texas football coach, says, "I guess I better like 'em. My wife gave me a couple Longhorns for Christmas last year." The point is, there's something in the Longhorn that everyone can admire.

Back on the rock, Carter is saying that all other breeds of cattle—Hereford, Angus, Charolais and so on—are nothing but "welfare cattle, who're just like people today, used to the spoon-fed approach to living." Carter spits, then falls silent. He tosses a handful of catfish pellets into Onion Creek, troubled by his thoughts. Carter knows that, hard as he tries, he cannot give the Texas Longhorn its due.

Nobody can. Not even J. Frank Dobie, the high guru of Longhorndom, who wrote in his book The Longhorns, "They possessed an adamantine strength, an aboriginal virility, a Spartan endurance, and a fierce nobility that somehow make one associate them with Roman legions and Sioux warriors." Dobie might be guilty of understatement.

If truth be told, the Longhorn is nature's most perfect gift. Better, even, than a sunset over Onion Creek. Better than anything, insists another Texan, Red McCombs, former owner of the San Antonio Spurs and now owner of the Denver Nuggets, who has gone nuts over Longhorns. McCombs can be counted on to show up in Denver to handle Nugget business when he says he will—unless he's sidetracked by a Longhorn sale en route. "Longhorns and basketball are both exciting," he says. "Both are full of surprises. But Longhorns don't demand no-cut contracts and first-class plane travel."

That's the point. Longhorns don't demand anything. If man takes care of a Longhorn, the Longhorn does fine; if man doesn't take care of a Longhorn, the Longhorn does fine. Doesn't matter. The Longhorn is absolutely, totally, wonderfully and irrevocably independent of us. After all, this is an animal so clever that it can make it through a thicket that rattlesnakes have to back out of; it can survive on land so barren that you can't gather enough dirt to throw in another man's face; it flourishes when it gets so dry and hot that a cowboy's tongue is only wet on one side; and in killer blizzards on the high plains, when all else living either gives up or hides, the Longhorn just turns its back and keeps on keeping on.

The Longhorn epic started on Columbus' second voyage to the New World, in 1493. He brought some Spanish Andalusian horned cattle (no relation to the famed fighting bulls) with him and put them ashore in Santo Domingo. In 1521, another explorer, Gregorio de Villalobos, brought a few of the cattle from Santo Domingo to Mexico, and in 1690, about 200 head were driven north to the mission at San Francisco de los Tejas, in an area that later became part of Texas.

In this tough environment the Andalusian cattle evolved into the incredible Texas Longhorn. Indeed, ranches and missions were hard put to survive, but the Longhorn went on to form the base for the entire Western cattle industry. The Longhorn succeeded because it was left to develop on its own and in the wild in the extremes of that climate. "Had they been registered and regulated, restrained and provided for by man," Dobie wrote, "they would not have been what they were." Among the Longhorns, only the strongest survived. Because of the innate qualities that allow them to hang tough in hard times, Stewart H. Fowler, head of the agriculture department at Berry College in Georgia and one of the foremost Longhorn experts, calls them a "genetic gold mine."

Despite this, man has tried to breed the Longhorn out of existence (too skinny, the beef ranchers say, and the horns get in the way); man has tried to slaughter the Longhorn out of existence (in 1865, there were 25 million, but by the early 1920s, perhaps only 1,000 were left, far fewer than the number of buffalo); man has tried to ridicule it out of existence (too tall, too lanky, meat's too dry, too slow to mature and gain weight, just a fad, crazy, uncontrollable).

All this having failed, cattle-fanciers suddenly are singing the praises of the Longhorn for the first time in more than 100 years. Which proves that God is a cowboy.

It also proves that man can be real quick to cast aside previous notions if he spots a chance to make money. Which is why the Longhorn is now being viewed not as a worthless critter but as a glorious one. Prices vary widely, but these days a young Longhorn heifer will bring $2,500 at sale, an average young bull $2,000, a steer ready for market $1,200. A one-third share of the breeding rights to one of the premier Longhorn bulls, Classic Quintana, was recently sold for $500,000. Consider that in 1884, a heifer of the Texas Longhorn breed (that's the official name, but they may now be found in 43 states) sold for $25. But just nine years later, a heifer sold for $6—if she had a calf at her side. They've been junk cattle, and they've been the stars at a black-tie sale in a third-floor ballroom of Houston's classy Westin Galleria Hotel. The Longhorn stays the same; we change.

A dramatic upsurge in the Longhorn's fortunes is occurring because the rest of the cattle industry—there are 114 million cattle of all breeds in the U.S., but only about 67,000 of them are purebred Longhorns—is discovering that breeding a Longhorn bull to, say, a Hereford heifer (a first-time momma) is almost a guarantee of the unassisted birth of a calf ready to travel when it hits the ground (30% or more of the calves born to other breeds of beef cattle must be helped at birth by man). That's primarily because the Longhorn baby will weigh from 45 to 55 pounds while other breeds produce calves weighing from 55 to 130. Obviously, the smaller Longhorn calf makes it easier on the mother, as well as on the rancher.

Too, Longhorns have greater resistance to disease; they live far longer (an average 21 years for cows vs. an average of 12 years for cows of other breeds); despite their slow start Longhorn steers weigh 1,600 pounds at maturity, just about average for all breeds; the females are extremely fertile, with heifers being able to produce offspring at a younger age than other breeds and cows at an older age; their meat is low fat, low in cholesterol and top grade; and they can change clothes in a phone booth. Butch Ramsey, a former ranch foreman for H.C. Carter, says, "The Longhorn, he'll eat the bark off that tree. He'll do what's necessary to survive. The Angus will go over and lie down by the same tree and die of starvation."

To be sure, not all cattlemen are as impressed. Lovell Kuykendall, an executive with the American Hereford Association in Kansas City, says icily of the Longhorn, "There's an element that likes 'em, I guess." An official of the Denver-based National Cattleman's Association says, "They're great cattle because they can stay alive. The trouble is, we don't need an animal that hearty, that robust."

But of course, we may. Fowler believes that our growing population will cause much current ranchland to be converted to grain growing for human consumption. "That," he says, "will leave only marginal land for cattle." And guess which breed survives great on oak leaves and mesquite and, who knows, maybe even rocks?

Veteran ranchers, however, remain reluctant to breed the Longhorn back into their cattle after working so hard to get it out. But they're beginning to see that while it may be too skinny as a purebred for the beef cattle business, the Longhorn passes along such significant good traits that right-thinking (and economically battered) cattlemen cannot afford to give the old-timey critter the curl of their lip.

"Yes, sir," says Chico Wright of Robstown, Texas, the owner of the nation's largest Longhorn ranch, with 750 head. "They have to be scrawny-looking or else they're not Longhorns. But I'll tell you this. The Longhorn is also just now taking its place back in the world."

Happy Shahan runs more than 500 Longhorns on some scrubby land around Alamo Village, Brackettville, Texas. He first got interested in the breed in 1958 when John Wayne asked him to buy 28 head for use in filming The Alamo on Shahan's spread, and he thinks so much of the Longhorns that he has reduced his Angus herd from 1,900 in 1978 to 400, while increasing the size of his Longhorn herd. Says Shahan, "The appeal of the Longhorn is history and horns. If a man is crazy enough to pay for history and horns, I'm crazy enough to sell to 'em. What you want to have are things that rich people buy and poor people want. As for me, I'm in Longhorns because I can make more money." Each year he sells 10 steers for a good price, $2,000 apiece, giving substance to the slogan of the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association in Fort Worth, "The Old Breed With The New Future."

The Longhorn also has been born again for sports and entertainment. Properly so because few animals have a more athletic disposition; perhaps too athletic: Jumping a seven-foot fence is just another day at the office for a Longhorn. Indeed, few things in sports can chill to the bone like the drama at the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City, when a herd of Longhorns spills into the arena under dancing lights. As competitors, increasing numbers of crossbred and even purebred Longhorns are showing up at rodeos, although their generally unfounded reputation of always having their eyes red and crossed turns off many rodeo stock contractors. "Too temperamental," grouses one contractor, Mike Cervi.

But in Salt Lake City, Swanny Kerby, who provides competition stock for 25 to 30 rodeos a year, has about 40 crossbred Longhorns for team roping and another half dozen bulls for riding, including two purebreds. "The Longhorn gives you a good, honest effort every time out," Kerby says. "In the team roping, it runs hard and straight." One of his purebred bulls, No. 18, "gets rode very, very seldom," says Kerby. "Just an outstanding bull who puts out. Most of the others don't do that." The best bulls, in Kerby's view, are half Longhorn-half Brahma, a combination that blends the white-hot temper of the Brahma with the stamina and heart of the Longhorn. Asked why others don't use Longhorns for rodeos, Kerby says, "Well, it's a new breed and folks aren't used to it yet." Strange as that sounds, the Longhorn seems like a new breed, so long has it been forgotten.

Of course, the most famous Longhorn of all is Bevo. At present the mascot is Bevo XII, soon to enter his third season. Like his breed, Bevo has a varied history. The University of Texas' first Longhorn mascot showed up at a Texas-Texas A&M game in 1916. The Aggies won, got hold of the Longhorn and gleefully branded the score, 13-0, on its flank. Embarrassed Texas students reworked the brand to make it read "Bevo," and the name stuck. Bevo II, sad to report, was actually a Hereford. Bevos IV, VI and VIII were fired because of their lousy tempers; Bevo VII succumbed to arthritis. These days, Bevo XII is sedated before his Saturday afternoon stadium appearances to make sure he doesn't revert to his range behavior. Ross Rathgeber, a Texas student who was one of Bevo XII's handlers last year, says, "He just evokes something out of the past in people. They love him."

Thus, the Longhorn is making this dramatic comeback as a serious contributor to rodeo and to entertainment, as well as the beef cattle industry. "We have to get to the table with something," says H.C. Carter. "If the housewife turns us down, the Longhorn will be back again selling for less money. But if man will get the hell out of his way, those cattle will make their contribution."

But perhaps the biggest reason of all for the Longhorn's regained respect is nostalgia. Breeder John Ball of Jacksboro, Texas says, "It's simple. They're beautiful, unique and full of romance and history. If you're going to own them, it helps to have poetry in your soul."

The Longhorn's day in the sun began in post-Civil War Texas. A Longhorn could be bought for a dollar or two and for another it could be driven up the Chisholm or Goodnight trails to Dodge City or Abilene, Kans. It was the Longhorn that created the reality—and, more important, the legend—of the cowboy. "Cowboys were the romance of our youth," says Ball. "We played cowboys and Indians. Now kids play E.T. and Star Wars. It doesn't seem quite the same."

In 24 years, 10 million head of Longhorn were driven north. In 1871 alone, more than 600.000 head traveled up the Chisholm Trail. Once in Kansas, the dollar Longhorn could be sold for $20 or more. True, the beef was tough. But be fair. After 1,500 to 2,000 miles of walking and running, it wasn't the Longhorns' fault. But their image of horns, ergo meanness, and toughness, ergo poor meat, was etched forever in memory in those trail-drive days. Adding to that image was the fact that Indians much preferred buffalo to Longhorn meat. Indeed, some said they might even prefer starving to eating Longhorn.

By and by, along came barbed-wire fence and the end of the open range. Railroads were making cattle drives obsolete. New breeds of beef cattle, English breeds like Durham and Hereford, were introduced, originally because the Longhorn couldn't produce enough tallow, which was needed for the candle-making industry. Soon the quest was for cattle that would gain a lot of weight fast. And the Longhorn was almost a goner. Says Ball, "I'll tell you what man did. He 'improved' the Longhorn into a short, fat steer that can't walk or hustle."

Still, in 24 years, the Longhorn defined us as a nation—tough, adventuresome, willing to risk to achieve, brave, and yes, a little bit wild and crazy. Which, of course, is what we were. And we remember. Down on Wilford Fultz's Little Bear Ranch in Cresson, Texas, Fultz bounces along in his pickup and says, "I just like to look at them. They're the beneficiaries of 400 years of natural culling, and what's left is one tough goddam animal."

Conventional wisdom has it that when the last man on earth takes his last breath, a coyote will be standing there looking at him. Longhorn breeders know, in fact, that when that day comes, a Longhorn will be watching the coyote. Mama Longhorns are fiercely protective of their young. Coyotes can pick off Hereford or Angus calves, but almost never do they get to a Longhorn calf. That's mainly because a Longhorn calf is never left alone. When the mother goes off, another baby-sits. John Ball claims that a dog of his that terrorized mountain lions and bears was absolutely worn out by a Longhorn cow.

And if living conditions are so atrocious that even a Longhorn frets about its future, the cow will ease the situation by simply not having a calf that year. Talk about birth control. If a Longhorn's hooves get sore, it soaks 'em in mud and water. No vet needed. Indeed, to generations of Americans brought up on fat cattle, the Longhorn's main minus is really a plus: It's not fat. Al Micallef, who raises Longhorns in Aledo, Texas, says, "He's a Ferrari engine with a Ford body."

One of the Longhorn's many charms is that no two look exactly the same—Longhorn genetics can be a crapshoot as well as a gold mine. A white bull bred to a white cow might well produce a black-and-brown spotted calf.

The storied horns of the breed sometimes approach eight feet from tip to tip, although four feet is considered a pretty good span. Fact is, the Longhorn just looks wild, although every cattleman knows if you truly want to talk rude, you're talking Jersey bull. But the Jersey somehow has a better rep.

No matter how hard people try, they can't ignore Longhorn horns. Steers have the longest of all. Yet, in the business, cattlemen—even Longhorn breeders—try to play this aspect of the breed down, making fun of the tourist who loves horns. But even high-rolling, tough-minded Red McCombs isn't immune. Standing in a field full of steers on his Johnson City ranch, McCombs says that before he went to his first sale about six years ago, a friend warned him, "Red, the main thing is don't get carried away with the steers because of their horns." McCombs promptly bought a steer with big horns for $1,270 and sheepishly told his friend. "I couldn't help it." But McCombs quickly got his feet on the ground. "Nostalgia got me interested," he says, "but my real interest is economic. If there isn't an economic return, my nostalgia is worth exactly 15 females and one bull." He has 550 head.

Meanwhile, in Dripping Springs, H.C. Carter and a bunch of cowboys have been rounding up cattle for branding all morning, doing it the old-fashioned way, on horses. Says Carter, "If somebody told me I could make $1,000 more a head on my Longhorns if I'd stay off my horse, I'd say, 'I think I'll find another way to make $1,000.' " Which explains why noon dinner of Longhorn pot roast, vegetables and corn bread is cooking over an open fire.

"This must have been the way it really was," says a visitor. Responds Carter, "I'll tell you this. It's a good thing there are hogs so people will like Longhorns better than something. Can you imagine going home to your wife and saying, 'Honey, I just bought 15 hogs 'cause they're so much fun. You're going to love it.' "

Everyone laughs. Carter pushes his hat back and looks over at his Longhorns. Longingly.



Bevo XII, the University of Texas mascot, is tended to by members of the school's Silver Spurs Society.



Wright's herd of 750 Longhorns is the largest in the nation.



Carter wouldn't punch that dogie if it were a Longhorn; "welfare cattle" aren't so safe.



Cross a Longhorn and a Brahma, and the result is a rough ride indeed for a rodeo cowboy.



From tip to tip, the longest of long horns measures eight feet, but four feet is normal.



John Wayne first interested Shahan in Longhorn cattle.