Texas Longhorns: Lean but not mean

Sidebar by Ed Quillen

Beef – September 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

AFTER LOOKING HARD at the fence and wondering how fast I could get over it, I hesitantly followed Ron Jones into his corral several miles west of Salida.

The critters — a bull, along with cows and their calves, a couple dozen all told — appeared rather placid, ignoring us as they concentrated on swishing their tails and shaking their heads to discourage the flies on this summer morning.

This was just as Ron had predicted, but it still took a few minutes for me to quit looking for one of those barrels that rodeo clowns use. Cows, like all mothers, are quite protective of their offspring, and these cows were armed with sharp yard-long horns that could rip out my innards with just a twist of their muscular necks.

“Longhorns have that reputation,” Ron had told me earlier, “but we don’t even own any horses. These cattle are so gentle we herd them on foot.” He’s never been poked by a horn, although “I’ve been run over a couple of times when a cow got spooked.”

The longhorn is as much a symbol of Texas as the Alamo and the Lone Star — and even though the breed didn’t originate there, the Texas symbolism is fitting, because Texas breeders rescued the breed from near extinction 75 years ago.

Cattle are not native to the Western Hemisphere; they probably originated in western Asia, and European cattle are descended from the aurochs, a beast which resembles a bison and became extinct in 1627 when the last one died in Poland.

The first American cattle — the ancestors of today’s longhorns — arrived in 1493 with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage, and they multiplied in the islands of the West Indies.

In 1519, Hernan Cortes departed from Cuba to conquer Mexico, and took “hardy, all-purpose cattle” on his ships. The cows fared better under Spanish rule than did the Aztecs, and thrived and spread to Texas.

By the time Americans arrived in Texas, in the 1820s and ’30s, longhorns abounded. Enterprising Americans herded them to markets, culminating in the great cattle drives of the 1870s. Some of those drives brought “Mexican cattle” from Texas to Colorado — directly on the Goodnight-Loving Trail which started in the Panhandle and passed through the Pueblo area, or via New Mexico with the Hispanic settlers who brought longhorns into the San Luis Valley.

The longhorn was tough, rangy, and quite successful at surviving on its own, providing it had room enough to roam.

But the drought and blizzards of the 1880s forced Western cattlemen to start fencing, limiting the longhorns’ range. Fences meant hiring men to mend them, and those men were also available to tend cattle that took more attention than the longhorns — English shorthorns at first, then Herefords and Angus.

Consumers began demanding tender beef with more fat (marbling), and there was also a profitable industrial market for that fat — tallow was used to make soap and candles. The new breeds, crossbreeds, and variations gained weight faster.

So by the 1920s, the longhorn, the foundation of the American cattle industry, was nearly extinct — there were more bison than longhorns. Longhorns were preserved and propagated in Texas, at first as a bit of nostalgia, and more recently as a hobby and commercial venture.

COMMERCIAL SUCCESS, though, hasn’t come easily. When Ron and Jo Jones started raising longhorns in 1980, the plan was to take steers to the saleyard, just like any other breed.

“But we got 10 to 15¢ a pound less, just because they were longhorns,” Ron recalls. “It had nothing to do with the quality of beef — it was just prejudice. And it meant we couldn’t make any money in the generic beef market.”

They started doing it themselves — raising the cattle to market weight with their own hay from their own pastures, marketing the beef, then arranging with Scanga Meat for slaughter and cutting after someone buys a side or two.

Ron’s a dentist, so the longhorns aren’t the family livelihood, “but they are now showing a profit,” he said.

Their herd consists of a bull and about 50 cow-calf pairs. Calves generally arrive in March and April, and they and their mothers are trucked to two leased summer pastures — one up Ute Trail, and the other on Dr. Harmon Leonard’s ranch. Down on the main ranch, the fields grow hay and alfalfa to get the herd through the winter.

In the fall, the cattle come down, trailed in a cattle drive. “That’s when you do need a horse,” Jo laughs, “but whenever word gets out that we’re going to move our cattle down, at least a dozen people, all with horses, volunteer to help on a longhorn drive.”

Ask Ron why he prefers longhorns to other breeds, and he can sound even more energetic than he does when he tells a patient to floss more often.

“They’re easy cattle to raise because they don’t need a lot of attention. They calve easily and the cows are good mothers. They live a long time — 20 to 25 years. They’re easy on the land because they move around instead of staying by water all the time. They’re hardy and disease-resistant, so they don’t need much doctoring.”

At sale time, some Jones cattle go to other longhorn herds, often to serve as tourist attractions at dude ranches that offer cattle drives. Others are sold for breeding stock — Jones does some selective breeding toward longer horns.

But most cattle Jones sells end up as steaks, roast, and burgers, all quite lean. Ron is quick to cite several studies performed at Texas A&M University and the University of Texas — longhorn beef has less fat, calories, and cholesterol than other types.

“It’s a small niche market,” he says, “but it’s a good niche — if you want to know what’s on your table, where and how it was raised, and that there were no hormones or antibiotics, then we’ve got it.”

The factors that worked against the longhorn a century ago — its adaptation to range life, its lean flanks, its inability to fit well in crowded feedlots — now work in its favor when many consumers are looking for leaner beef raised without chemicals.

As the saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and as I departed, Jo gave me two pounds of frozen longhorn hamburger.

Braving an afternoon rain, I grilled longhorn burgers on the patio a few nights later. They were lean, hardly dripping at all. I feared a grassy, venison taste, but instead, it was a tangy, interesting taste. The Quillen family verdict: good eating, and if we had a big freezer, we’d look into a side of longhorn.

Ed Quillen helps publish Colorado Central, and never met a beefsteak he didn’t like. Liver is an entirely different matter.