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Exploring the Genetic Foundation of Today’s Texas Longhorns
Presented by: Don Limb
ITLA University Producer Seminar
Or, How Did We Get From Here?
Exploring the Genetic Foundation of Today's Texas Longhorns.
I have been raising Texas Longhorn cattle since 1983 and have just completed writing a "No Spin" book about one of the Pioneer Breeders, Milby Butler. It was through my research into writing this book that I was asked to discuss today's topic; Exploring the Genetic Foundation of Today's Texas Longhorns. I am not going to go into details if our cattle either originated in Spain, Portugal or Hispanola. Neither am I going to discuss blood type similarities between the Mertolenga, Criollo, or the Retinta cattle and Texas Longhorns. This topic is going to focus on who were the first cattlemen to register their longhorns back in 1964 and 1965 and which bloodlines they represented and the impact these cattle made on our breeding programs today. To do this, I studied the pedigrees of the first 400 Longhorn cows and 200 bulls that were initially registered by the TLBAA. Interestingly, I have uncovered some information on the bloodlines of these cattle that were either unknown or forgotten.
Back in the early '70's Darol Dickinson had an absolute stroke of marketing genius. Apparently through his travels and studying this breed of cattle, he recognized that there were distinct differences in the types of Longhorns raised by longtime breeders. These differences ranged from: horn length and shape, body conformation, color and size. His studies finally resulted into what is commonly referred today as the Seven Families of Texas Longhorn bloodlines. We have the Yates, WR, Wright, Peeler, Butler, Phillips, and Marks families to thank. Of course there were many more individual ranching families than the final seven that raised Longhorns for many, many years. It was just that these seven families represented the best-unmixed, genetic examples that stood out and apart from each other.
My research revealed that the early Texas Longhorn breeders were not as much concerned with the pedigree of a Longhorn as we are today. They were basically breeding for a quality animal but had limited sources of outside genetics to choose from. The unavailability of other genetics caused many breeders to resort to their only other choice: which was inbreeding. Inbreeding is defined as the mating of animals very closely related, such as breeding a parent and offspring, full brother and sister, or half brother and sister together. Sometimes, inbreeding will work to identify positive genes and/or isolate negative genes. This breeding strategy can be used very effectively, but what must be also considered is that the greater the inbreeding, the greater reduction in reproductive performance. It appears that the early breeders had to constantly deal with this kind of problem.
On a side note, I have read that the genetic baseline of Texas Longhorn cattle "were Criollo cattle, modified by natural selection during the 350 years they roamed in North America, on which a small degree of intermixing with European cattle had been imposed for a few decades. Any slight influence from the European and/or British breeds, if it existed, was gone after about eight generations". Nevertheless, Texas Longhorns "lacked the evolutionary time to become a "fixed" type. J. Frank Dobie stated that Longhorns never became uniform in the manner of characteristic Plains fauna such as the antelope and buffalo-which had millions and millions of individuals of each specie that are almost exactly alike in appearance. This lack of fixed type presents Texas Longhorn breeders with unique breeding opportunities and also inherent dangers".
We are fortunate enough to have such a wide genetic base to work with that inbreeding is not often considered in a breeding program. However, this can also be a danger when breeding for a "single trait" selection, such as horn growth. I have seen some Longhorns with exceptional horn growth, but were obviously infertile. There is another Texas Longhorn Association, the Cattlemen's Texas Longhorn Registry (CTLR) that is comprised of members who feel that "the survival of the original Longhorn type and the important qualities unique to the breed is being bred-out and compromised for short-term economic gain. Their goal is to ensure that by blood typing and visual inspection, the historically correct Texas Longhorn cattle are preserved and perpetuated".
Now, back to my main point of discussing the original bloodlines that formed the foundation of the original cattle that were registered. In 1964, Charlie Schreiner of the YO Ranch was instrumental in forming the original Texas Longhorn registry, the TLBAA. And it is through these original pedigree records; I have surprisingly found a common link. The first individuals to register their cattle are commonplace names in our industry. Some names may have been forgotten, however their efforts were just has important. The first in the list are: Charlie Schreiner, Graves Peeler, Sidney Griggs, Milby Butler, Buck Eckols, Elvin Blevins, Eddie Wood, F.M. "Blackie" Graves, R.G. (Gerry) and Sam Partlow, Oswald Sauer, Emil Marks, Fayette Yates, Russell Stanger, Julian Howard (WR), M.P. "Chico" Wright, Jack Phillips, Don Jernigan, Rocky Reagan, Harry Ponn, and the King Ranch.
Remember, these individuals did not have access to such a wide array of Texas Longhorn genetics as we have today. Before forming the TLBAA, there weren't any sales where they could get outcross blood to add to their herd. But there was one man that was known far and wide to have Longhorns that were the best of the best. Many well-known Texas Longhorn breeders got their start in the business with the help of this man. "He was known to have one of the best combinations of quality and quantity in the Longhorn business so naturally his herd played a major role in elevating the breed to its current level of popularity". He was a true cowman in every sense. His cattle were considered professional range cattle; hardy, rugged and durable with the size that appealed to commercial cattlemen". This man was just like his cattle too. If anyone ever studied the genetic foundation of the Texas Longhorn cattle, as we know it today, they too would agree, that the cattle raised by Graves Peeler was the key. "If not for the efforts of Graves Peeler, the very notion of "the Seven Families of Texas Longhorns" may well been a hypothetical one".
How can I make that statement? Let me ask: Of those that initially registered their cattle in 1964 and 1965, who didn't use Peeler breeding? This bloodline dominated the registry. Out of the first 400 cows registered, approximately 226 (56.5%) were from Graves Peeler's breeding program. The first cow ever registered was YO Carmela by Charlie Schreiner III of Mountain Home, Texas. She was Peeler breeding top and bottom. How about longtime Longhorn breeder, Buck Eckols from the east Texas town of Liberty? Since he and Graves Peeler were Texas lawmen and good friends, Buck Eckols used Peeler breeding extensively.
Unknown to many, Peeler's breeding was used by other area Longhorn breeders as well; Gerry and Sam Partlow of Liberty and Blackie Graves of Dayton, Texas. Other than having a foundation of WR cattle bought back in 1956, the Partlow's regularly used bulls from Graves Peeler. One of the most common mistakes made today is that the bull, Dode's Boy, is considered straight Butler breeding when in fact his dam, Miss Liberty 10th, goes back to a bull borrowed from Graves Peeler.
In 1965, Blackie Graves built his foundation herd named the "Miss Dayton" cows from the WR breeding found in Lutcher Stark herd as well as a sprinkling of cows from Milby Butler. But Blackie's use of Dode's Boy is where he added Peeler breeding to his herd. Blackie also used the famous bull Man O'War, which was considered straight Butler breeding, when in fact Buck Eckols branded this bull. Remember, Buck Eckols mainly used Peeler breeding! Coincidentally, when Blackie registered the original Sam bull, TLBAA #15, in November 1964, his neighbor Buck Eckols registered Peeler bred bulls #16 and #17 at the same time.
Heading southwest through Houston, Jack Phillips lived in Brazoria County, which is along the Texas Gulf Coast. Jack was a good friend of Graves Peeler and had bought Longhorn cattle from him too. I found a statement made by Jack Phillips that said: "I never did travel with Graves Peeler. He always traveled alone. But Graves Peeler brought all of the cattle they didn't use to me and he let me have a few of the cows and one of the three dun colored bulls he had found in Mexico. That's where the dun strain in my herd comes from".
While writing my book, "The Real Butler Story", I also found out that Milby Butler used Peeler breeding. Without a doubt, Milby Butler was committed to developing superior cattle, regardless whether they were Brahmans or Texas Longhorns. If it took other Longhorn family bloodlines to add to his breeding program, this did not deter him. "In his continuing search to introduce outside blood to his herd, Milby is said to have borrowed a two-year old wine and white specked bull from Gerry Partlow of Liberty, Texas. Partlow had leased two or three bulls from Graves Peeler and didn't need the extra one. Milby was glad to get a bull of unrelated blood". It is not known if this Peeler bull was used in Butler's herd, only that an old quotation from Henry Butler, Milby's son stated that the Peeler bull was apparently killed before they could put it to use.
But that was not the only use of Peeler breeding in the Butler bloodline. In the late 1940's and early '50's, Charlie Schreiner and Jess McNeil (who owned an International Equipment dealership in San Antonio) bought the entire calf crops from Graves Peeler. At the time of Milby Butler's death, I discovered that Jess McNeil and Milby were also partners in cattle. Now to take it one step further. Remember when I found the statement made by Jack Phillips that the dun coloration in his herd resulted from using a bull that Graves Peeler got from Mexico? Well, where do you think the dun coloration might come from in Milby Butler's herd? At the height of his involvement with the TLBAA, Milby Butler attended the "San Antonio Sale" held on Saturday, February 19, 1966. A review of this sale catalog and the accompanying notes made by Milby's "friend", Ms. Pauline Russell, reflects that Milby purchased Lot #27. This lot consists of a dun colored, Phillips bred Longhorn bull named Comanche 7 and was purchased for a grand total of $225. Two Tone sired both Texas Ranger JP and his brother, Comanche 7. These two Peeler/Phillips bred bulls could possibly be the missing link to the dun coloration found in today's "straight" Butler breeding.
Milby Butler was concerned with the problem of inbreeding and so were Emil Marks and Fayette Yates. As previously stated, and to no surprise, they also selected Peeler breeding to out-cross with
Darol Dickinson could credit his beginning in the Longhorn business to Graves Peeler. "In 1967, Darol saw an ad, in which Happy Shahan of Bracketville, Texas was selling Texas Longhorns. Darol called his uncle, Art Shahan, to see if they were related. He was distantly related to Happy, and told Darol that Happy had bought cattle from Graves Peeler who was his uncle's neighbor. He suggested buying Longhorns from Peeler, since his herd was generally regarded as one of the best. Darol ended up buying six cows, six calves and a bull." (named Sam Bass). This bull has produced a number of outstanding offspring, which can be found in a number of herds today, including Miss Lin, Mr. Dillon and Mr. Lin".
It is commonly known that Jack Phillips and Walter Scott bought out the remaining cows from Graves Peeler. Walter Scott even bought Peeler's "Wineglass" brand and eventually named his ranch "La Copa de Vino". Graves Peeler's family brand was the 7 LP, which stood for the Seven Little Peelers. One of Walter Scott's statements was that "Graves Peeler himself made the Peeler bloodline unique. He wasn't interested in selling cattle for profit. And the main reason he registered and promoted the Texas Longhorn cattle was to inject their valuable genetics into the commercial cattle market. What he looked for was the typical Texas Longhorn with characteristics they had in the last century. He didn't breed for horns, color, or conformation in particular, but for all the traits that made the Texas Longhorn what it is today".
Are Peeler cattle known for their "high spiritedness"? Since I have been breeding Longhorns for over 20 years, I have attended many cattle auctions, including the King Ranch reduction sale held in January 1990 at the LPC in Castroville, Texas, which is west of San Antonio. The King Ranch brought over 200 head from the South Texas outback to town. Evidently, these cattle had rarely, if ever, seen a human being. When these cattle came into the ring, it was a shock to their system as well as to ours. These cattle weren't wild in the least, they were prehistoric. I remember George Gillman had purchased some of their huge steers. And when I questioned his sanity, he calmly told me that these steers were headed one way; to the packer, just so he could keep the huge horns. That way, he was sure to make a profit, keep his fence line intact and neighbors happy. The public appearance of these King Ranch/Peeler cattle did not help with the (mis) perception that Peeler bred cattle were "athletic". At the final King Ranch dispersal held around 1996, I had the fortunate opportunity to attend. Cattle my friends purchased there were just fine, even after we got them to their new home.
While discussing the Peeler bloodline, I can't omit talking about Robby Robinson of Junction, Texas. Robby has a Texas sized ranch out west of San Antonio. I think he mentioned to me that it was something like 75 square miles, 75 sections, or it's 75 miles from one end to the other. Either way, I'm impressed. This is a professional cattle ranch and of course, it's home to Texas Longhorn cattle. He told me that he bought about 40 Peeler heifers in 1970 because they were the only cattle that would work in his type of country. And to this day, Robby still raises Peeler Longhorns. To me, that is enough proof that these cattle are excellent, professional grade cattle in all regards. So give Robby a call if you are looking to add these proven genetics to your herd.
"Many times we will see an obviously inferior cow, of impeccable pedigree, sold for a great sum of money in public auctions. We must remember that the pedigree does not make an inferior cow better-it only enhances the value of a superior animal". That is a quote given by John Ball back in the early 1970's. It surely has stood the test of time hasn't it?
Another observation that I've made recently is with the 2004 horn measurement contest catalog. I think I know pedigrees pretty well. I mean, I could pick out bloodlines and family lines and see how they have crossed well with others. I try to pick out commonalities and consistencies to see if the cross works well. Now going through this catalog, I couldn't find any straight family bloodline represented, with the exception of one, Butler. There very few real 100% Butler out of over 200 animals represented. And Butler cattle are known as the bloodline that provides the horn producing genetics? What happened to the other family lines?
The Texas Longhorn industry is at a point where the individuality of breed genetics and the inheritable traits of each of the original seven families have become so diluted that we are now often using the term "blend genetics" to describe the bloodlines of our cattle. They are all blended to a point their genetics have become so diluted they don't represent the old time Longhorn as we knew them. There is no doubt that by combining these various bloodlines our present day cattle have dramatically improved.
Our cattle have progressed from having horns that measured around 36" in the '60's, to the mid-50"s in the '70's, and well into the 60" range in the late '90's. What's the limit to horn length? J.L. Collier has a cow that measures over 80'! And look at the great bull, Superbowl, which is currently owned in partnership with Darol Dickinson and the YO Ranch. I think he measures over 74" T2T. In just over 20 years, many breeders have cattle that have easily broken the 60" mark, and there are now approximately 70-75 registered Longhorn cows that have broken 70".
Pedigree engineering is the key that makes that type of progress. The original pioneer breeders; Cap Yates, Jack Phillips, Milby Butler, "Chico" Wright, Emil Marks; they all selected the best Longhorn genetics available to improve their cattle. And at time, they selected those genetics from Graves Peeler's Longhorn breeding program. The original pioneer breeders were then followed by the next generation that built their foundation herd using Peeler breeding too. Just to name a few, there were: Charlie Schreiner, Walter Scott, Happy Shahan, Buck Eckols, Blackie Graves, Gerry and Sam Partlow and the famous King Ranch.
Not only have those breeders previously mentioned contributed to the increased quality of horn growth in our Longhorns, but also every generation has a few individuals that have consistently pushed the limits in their respective breeding programs. They too have provided us with the genetic base to build the next generation of superior Longhorn cattle upon. Just to name a few, we can thank: DeWitt Meshell, Betty Lamb, Robert Harrell, Darol Dickinson, and Johnny Hoffman for their efforts.
As I previously mentioned, I believe we are in a unique time period in the Longhorn industry. We have an incredible amount of Longhorn genetics to select from and it may be possible that the selection of the original Seven Family bloodlines to breed with may be something of the past. By following a straight family bloodline for single trait selection, have we forgot that the original breeders did their own genetic blending too?
Instead, I think we will continue to seek out and breed with the superior cattle that have proven to consistently make an impact to the genetic Longhorn baseline. Some of the best bulls that have these superior genetics are: Emperor, Phenomenon, Shadow, Gunman, and Coach. And the next generation of breeders, such as Bill Hudson, Darol Dickinson, Joe Valentine, Bob Loomis, Larry Stewart, Ron Marquess and many others are engineering these various Texas Longhorn pedigrees to make the 70 and 80-inch horn length more than just a fluke. To that degree, I thank them.
What can we expect to see in the future? Get a longer tape measure.