Lukefahr Cattle Ranch is located in south Texas, a region that has prolonged extreme to exceptional droughts, brutally hot and humid summers, and relentless external parasites. “STAR” cattle fit into this adverse environment. STAR stands for S – Senepol, T – Tuli, and AR - Angus Red. Angus is the most popular breed in the U.S. beef cattle industry, but red rather than black color is important with regards to heat tolerance. STAR could also stand for South Texas Angus Red in terms of the infusion of many genes to a Red Angus base from the Senepol and Tuli breeds for heat tolerance and drought adaption to this harsh region. Cattle are adaptable to this drought-proned environment by maintaining good hormonal balance and body condition on grass, and being highly fertile by raising a good calf year after year, and doing so efficiently, in part, because of their moderate body size – to increase profit per acre. Because there never will be a perfect breed, STAR cattle have genes combined from Senepol, Tuli, and Red Angus, and with hybrid vigor to boot – a benefit of crossbreeding. The ultimate breeding objective for Lukefahr Ranch is as follows: To maintain a breeding herd of polled, slick and white STAR cattle of appropriate genetics for the region where selection is applied to promote high fertility and survival in a low input system.
Below is a photo of a typical STAR cow that weighs about 1,000 pounds and is 1/2 Tuli, 1/4 Senepol. and 1/4 Red Angus. She has tremendous gut-fill capacity and high nutrient utilization that results in ideal body condition (without being fed hay or energy or protein supplements). In addition, the dominant slick hair gene further promotes adaptation to the harsh south Texas environment. Lukefahr Ranch sells bull calves from such cows. In one generation, a dramatic downsize from large and less efficient to small and efficient cows is possible. Bigger is NOT always better!
In recent years of exceptional drought, with appropriate genetics and sound pasture management practices, it was not necessary to feed hay or routinely provide energy or protein supplements or sell any good cows. Hay has not been fed for 14 years now. In 2014, the feed cost per cow was under $4.00 and total cost per cow was under $400. With high cattle prices, profit per acre was about $60. The pregnancy rate for 2014 was 96% and the same 96% figure applied to cows conceiving during their first heat cycle. Cows were rebred during July and August of 2014. Below are photos of cows with their newborn calves that were born last spring, mostly in May. These cows did not receive any energy or protein supplements during pregnancy.
More about genetics – The N’Dama (an African breed that is the foundation of Senepol cattle) and Tuli are two breeds that evolved over 5,000 years in Africa. Despite drought, tropical climatic conditions, and real challenges associated with fly- and tick-borne diseases, these breeds developed major genetic adaptation and resistance. In addition, these African breeds were not fed dietary supplements such as grain as is done in feedlots. Too, only the most gentle or docile cattle were selected. However, recent molecular genetic studies have revealed that Senepol may actually have only a trace of N’Dama or African breed influence. Other ancestral lines of mostly European origin did evolve for as long as 500 years in the Caribbean tropical environment, which has many of the same challenges (high heat and humidity levels and an abundance of ticks) as found in Africa. Interestingly, studies suggest too that the slick hair mutation is not of African origin but rather occurred in cattle populations in Latin America. The slick gene’s role in conferring heat tolerance to both beef and dairy cattle is well appreciated by traditional breeders in Latin America.
Below is a photo of a STAR cow that weighs about 1,050 pounds with her Red Angus-sired heifer calf. The cow is homozygous dominant for the slick hair gene, which means that all her calves will be slick. Besides the advantage of heat tolerance, the slick coat makes it difficult for ticks to climb onto the animal. Instead, an animal with hairy ears with its head down grazing is an invitation for ticks to grab a hair and climb on board! Also notice the many vertical skin folds – particularly in the neck area. This feature helps to stretch the hide to dissipate body heat. These and many other evolutionary-based features account for her adaptability and the ability to rebreed readily every year without pampering.
The Senepol, Tuli, and Red Angus breeds are compatible in body type and conformation, which, along with potentially substantial hybrid vigor, translates into remarkably productive and efficient cows and calves that are also uniform. There are no purebreds on Lukefahr Ranch. Presently, cattle average approximately 33% influence for each of the three breeds. Between the Senepol and Tuli breeds there is significant African genetic influence in STAR cattle, which accounts for their high level of fertility and survival, early maturity and(or) genetic adaptability with minimal production inputs.
This custom-made, commercial three-breed composite yields adaptable, easy-care cattle. These cattle are of the Bos taurus type with no Brahman-influence (Bos indicus). Bull and heifer calves reach puberty early, even at 6 to 7 months, in part due to no Bos indicus influence. These uniquely bred cattle possess slick hair coats and numerous vertical skin folds, while depositing little fat along the tops of their backs (but more in the abdominal region), among other vital characters that collectively explain why they are often observed grazing in pastures during the heat of the afternoon in summer. Below is a photo of a heifer that calved at 17 months of age without assistance. Although the mating was not planned, because of her genetics for adaptation (a 5/8 blend of Senepol and Tuli with 3/8 Red Angus) the heifer developed well even while pregnant without receiving feed supplements. She also bred back one month later.
Body coat colors of STAR cattle range from white to red. Cattle with black body coats fare poorly in south Texas; fertility is especially poor in the summer. Instead, this is the ideal time to breed if when wishes to work with Nature and maintain a low-input system. A recent trend at Lukefahr Ranch is the use of light-colored STAR bulls to produce more light-colored (yellow and white) replacements. Soon most STAR cattle will be yellow or white in order to confer additional heat tolerance. This is because lighter colors reflect more ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Some studies have reported that lighter colored cattle spend more time grazing and attract fewer flies. At present, most STAR cows are heterozygous for the dominant slick coat gene. In the near future, calves will be DNA tested – only those that are homozygous dominant will be selected so that they will breed true for this critical trait.However, a DNA test is not necessary to know if a calf is yellow or white colored! Below is a photo of a STAR cow that is slick and light colored.
In addition, cows are small to moderate in body size (weighing mostly between 900 to1,000 pounds), produce just enough milk, and do not carry excessive flesh or bone. Cows thrive on mature, coarse forage during summer and winter seasons with limited or no energy or protein supplementation. At weaning, it is not uncommon for a cow to wean 60 even 70% of her own body weight in terms of the weight of the calf. The first photo below is of an approximate 1,000 pound cow with her 9 month-old, Red Angus-sired calf. In 2013 and 2014, heifers were wintered on their dams to minimize stress and avoid unnecessary costs of feed supplements. This allowed more time for heifers to adopt their dam’s behaviors in selective grazing, gentle dispositions, respect for fences, coming to the manager’s call to rotate pastures, etc. This calf’s 205 day-adjusted weaning weight was 505 pounds. On 8 March 2014, the heifers were weaned. There was no weaning stress. The cost per heifer over the winter was only $3.26 – solely in vaccination costs. In previous years when heifers were weaned in fall, the cost was well over $100 per heifer (mostly feed and not including labor costs). In addition, all cows that wintered their heifers successfully calved about two months later and were in good body condition.
With our emphasis on small, efficient and easy care cows that are adapted to the region, we figure that we can run three 1,000 pound cows instead of the norm of two 1,500 cows in the same pasture area. Such large cows consume more grass and wean a lower percentage of their body weight in the weight of their calves, so we bank on both cow and pasture efficiency. Smaller cows are also easier to manage, cause less wear and tear on facilities, and more can fit in a trailer.
An added value is that calves are suitable for all natural, grass-finishing operations. For several years now, STAR stocker calves have been sold to grass-finishing businesses. STAR stockers fatten easily on grass. There is also adequate marbling and the tenderness of the meat has been impressive. A study conducted at the Texas A&M University beef cattle station at Ulvalde reported that Senepol X Angus and Tuli X Angus crossbred steers had numerically higher carcass dressing percent, marbling scores, and ribeye area than purebred Angus steers.
The goal of Lukefahr Ranch is to breed adaptable cattle that can be sustained on forage stockpiled between severe droughts with no energy or protein feed supplementation and readily breed during the peak summer period and make a good profit on a per acre basis. It is my belief that this goal is important in the face of global climate change.
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“Professors must first become model ranchers” (Johann Zeitsman, Man, Cattle and Veld (2014)(page 165).