Longhorn remains a breed apart Original: Once near extinction, the longhorn today remains the only breed of cattle in the United States created by natural selection.

Sun Journal

October 10, 1998|By Bryan Woolley | Bryan Woolley,DALLAS MORNING NEWS

TUSCOLA, Texas -- Even if you've never seen him before, Amigo Yates looks familiar. Reddish hair. Big brown eyes. He's 11 years old, weighs maybe 1,300 pounds. His horns measure 103 inches from tip to tip and spiral outward in what old-time cowmen call a "Texas twist."

Amigo Yates is a longhorn steer, a champion of his kind, a classic. He could be the model for the longhorn that shows up everywhere in Texas on signs, billboards, TV commercials, menus, company stationery, business cards, calendars.

The longhorn is the totem of Texas, its sacred beast, its quintessential symbol. Because of the longhorn, the horseback laborer who tended him became America's most popular folk hero. Because of the longhorn, the world thinks of Texas the way it does.

All of which means nothing to Amigo Yates, standing under the broiling sun in a pasture outside Tuscola, a tiny town south of Abilene. He sees his owner, Fayette Yates, roll down the dusty ranch road in a truck. He thinks maybe Yates is bringing him something to eat. A small afternoon treat. He trots toward the truck.

"Nothing for you," Yates tells him. "You're greedy."

Amigo Yates hangs around a while anyway, huffing, still hoping, then moves slowly off toward the trees.

Yates takes off his gimme cap, wipes the sweat from his thinning white hair and gazes admiringly after the steer. "Ain't he nice?" he says. "Real full-blood longhorns like him are getting pretty damn scarce. I doubt that there's 3,000 or 4,000 of them in the United States."

Well, it depends on whom you ask.

Tim Miller of Great Bend, Kan., president of the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America, disagrees with Yates. The longhorn is doing just fine, he says. The great-horned beast, believed to be near extinction only 50 years ago, now numbers in the tens of thousands.

"When our association started in 1964, there were only 1,400 longhorn cattle left in the world," Miller says. "But since then we've registered 250,000 head. And those are only the best animals. There are thousands more that their owners don't consider fine enough to register. But they're real longhorns, too.

"Today's longhorn is the same animal that was going up the trails in the 1860s and '70s," Miller says. "They're just not slab-sided and rail-thin like they were then. They're taken care of now."

Yates, whose grandfather Ira drove thousands of longhorns up the Chisholm and other great cattle trails, scoffs.

"I've ate more cattle than them sumbitches have ever seen," he says. "I know a real longhorn when I see one. Them cattle they're calling longhorns ain't longhorns. Their heads ain't right, their bodies ain't right, their necks ain't right, their tails ain't right."

One thing both men can agree on is that, while the Hereford, the Angus and all other breeds were created by man through selective breeding, the Texas longhorn is the result of natural selection and survival of the fittest. "It's the only cattle breed in this country that nature created," says Miller.

Its evolution began in 1493, when Columbus brought a load of cattle from Spain to Santo Domingo on his second voyage to the New World. Two centuries later, Franciscan friars drove cattle across the Rio Grande into Texas to provide beef for their missions.

Over the years, some of the animals strayed or were chased away by Indians. They became wild animals, breeding in the wilderness.

Only the smart and the strong could survive the rigors of the harsh Texas wilderness and weather. Over time they developed into a new type of cattle: the Texas longhorn, a breed as tough as the land that spawned it.

"They do so well on their own that people don't have to mess with them," says Walter Schreiner, whose family has raised longhorns for four generations on the YO Ranch near Mountain )) Home, Texas. The YO's herd of 1,500 is the largest in the world.

"They live a long time. They produce a calf every year. They have very strong mothering instincts and will gang up to protect their calves from coyotes and panthers. They can walk a long way to water. They can survive on marginal land during a drought. They'll eat out of the trees like a deer. When it gets real, real dry, they'll even eat cactus."

The YO's cattle are docile, but the old wild ones were no more domestic than the buffalo and antelope that shared the prairie with them. Prince Carl von Solms-Braunfels, founder of New Braunfels, Texas, reported that his German colonists hunted longhorns like big game, but they were very hard to kill.

When Texas troops returned from four years of Civil War, they found the old Cotton Kingdom dead, nearly all their neighbors broke and 5 million wild cattle roaming the land, free of charge to anyone who could catch them.

Between 1866 and 1890, 10 million cattle moved over the trails out of Texas. They added 200 million golden, 19th-century dollars to the state's economy and lifted it from the poverty the war had wrought.

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