UPDATE: In 2020, most of the Star herd was sold to a cooperator breeder with Pharo Cattle Company. Go to the Ranch Management Update page for more details.
Lukefahr Ranch (LR) is located in deep south Texas, a region where prolonged extreme to exceptional droughts, brutally hot and humid summers, and relentless external parasites are the norm. “STAR” composite-bred cattle fit into this adverse environment. This composite was built from the bottom up, which involved the initial crossbreeding of Senepol, Tuli and Red Angus breeds to produce F1 animals. (An F1 animal is not a composite.) In turn, F1 animals were inter-crossed and selected largely by Nature for many generations for traits that relate to adaptation to the south Texas environment. STAR stands for S – Senepol, T – Tuli, and AR – Angus Red. STAR could also stand for South Texas Angus Red in terms of the infusion of many genes to a Red Angus foundation base from the Senepol and Tuli breeds for heat tolerance and drought adaptation. For several years now, bulls have been sold to ranchers who have operations in AR, FL, LA, MO, MS, NM, NV, OK and SC. They claim that these bulls tolerate the heat and humidity well, have high libido and fertility, and maintained good body condition while thriving in fescue country.
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, although many other traits besides color make an animal heat tolerant. In general, in south Texas no more than 1/3 Red Angus is critical to maintain adaptability to this subtropical environment (about the only exception to this at Lukefahr Ranch have been cows that are 1/2 Red Angus and 1/2 Senepol). Angus cattle are originally from Scotland. There cattle are adaptable if they are block-shaped and deep-bodied and have the ability to store a lot of external fat just below the skin… and have black and long hairy coats. In such cold environments, black color absorbs solar radiation to help keep an animal warm – a phenomenon called thermal melanism. Hairy coats, block-shaped and deep bodies with much external fat better insulates the animal. However, in south Texas and in much of the U.S., cattle need to stay cooler not warmer! In tropical environments, cattle tend to be more oblong in shape, fat is stored more so in the abdominal region rather than externally, and tend to be lighter colored with very short hair coats. These and other critical traits make cattle more genetically adaptable which allows for high fertility and survival. Having appropriate or inappropriate genetics can either make or break your cattle business.
STAR composite-bred cattle are adaptable to this subtropical and drought-proned environment by maintaining good hormonal balance and body condition on only grass. Star cows are highly fertile and raise a good calf year after year; they do so efficiently, in part, because of their moderate body size. This focus ultimately increases profit per acre. Several research studies conducted in tropical environments have demonstrated that Senepol and Tuli are similar to Brahman or Brahman crossbreds in terms of heat tolerance. Because there never will be a perfect breed, STAR cattle have desirable genes combined from three breeds: Senepol, Tuli, and Red Angus. And there is hybrid vigor to boot – a benefit of crossbreeding. In addition, slick and lighter colored Star cattle are cooler and attract fewer flies. As a result the cattle are more genetically resistant to external parasites. For example, the Star herd bull in the second photo below is slick and light colored, attracts very few flies, and is highly fertile in the summer. For years now, the Star herd has been genetically selected for fly resistance and has not been treated with insecticides or dewormers for either external or internal parasites.
STAR cattle possess a high level of genetic influence for heat tolerance with the 2/3 or 67% combined inheritance of genes from Senepol and Tuli breeds. In 2018, several calves in the STAR herd have over 80% tropical breed influence, mostly of African breed descent. According to Johann Zeitsman (a pioneer cattle breeder from Zimbabwe), cattle in the south or Gulf Coast region should have a high level of African genetics for heat tolerance and(or) tropical adaptability. Presently, there are only two African breeds in the U.S. – Mashona and Tuli. In 2017, the Mashona breed was introduced to the Star herd to further increase the influence of African genetics and the first calf crop was born in 2018. This introduction is being tested. In contrast, Brahman and Brahman-derived breeds from Bos indicus have some rather major trait issues (which are well documented in the scientific literature), which many ranchers try to avoid.
The ultimate breeding objective for Lukefahr Ranch is as follows: To maintain a breeding herd of polled, slick and light-colored STAR cattle of appropriate tropical genetics for the region where selection is applied to promote high fertility and survival in a low input system while working closely with Nature.
A STAR cow typically weighs between 1,000 and 1,100 pounds. She has tremendous gut-fill capacity and high nutrient utilization ability 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 for breeding from such cows. In one generation of mating a Star bull to large cows (1,500 pounds and heavier), a dramatic downsize to small and more efficient cows is possible. In addition, the same land area can be stocked with the more cows (three 1,000 pound cows rather than two 1,500 pound cows). In addition, smaller cows are more efficient. And you will have more total calves and productivity per acre! Bigger is NOT always better!
In economic terms, in recent years of exceptional drought, with appropriate genetics and sound pasture management practices, it was not necessary to feed hay, routinely provide energy or protein supplements or sell any good cows. Hay has not been fed for over 16 years. For the past five years, the average feed cost per cow has been under $10.00. In 2019 the total direct and overhead costs was $313 per cow. Based on local market prices for good 5-weight steers, profits per cow and per acre were calculated at $282 and $39 (although calves were actually sold mostly at higher prices as breeding stock). In addition, 58 pounds of beef per acre was yielded based on total weights in weaned calves and total acreage. The USDA – Livestock Marketing Information Center projected for 2019 that total costs per cow would exceed $850 with a loss in average calf returns of $14.
One key to profitability is to keep input costs down by avoiding unnecessary costs and to utilize appropriate genetics. Again, in 2019 the total direct and overhead costs averaged only $313 per cow. The cow pregnancy rate was 97.7%. Despite brutally high temperature and humidity levels during the breeding season (mid-July through August), the vast majority of cows conceived in their first heat cycle. Further, cows at Lukefahr Ranch are not pampered; if they do not adapt they are culled. Years ago when the Star composite was first formed the emphasis was on breeding moderate-sized cattle from adaptable and functional breeds (including a large infusion of African genetics), and then crossing these breeds to make them all-the-more hardy – with hybrid vigor as a bonus from crossbreeding. In addition, with respect to adaptability, the herd has not been treated for years for either external or internal parasites.
More about genetics – The N’Dama (an African breed that has been long considered as 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. 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 “Criollo” 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. However, the breeder must be careful when choosing the Senepol breed. A few decades ago when the breed was introduced to the U.S., some AI companies promoted the breed by selling semen from bulls that had the highest weaning weight EPDs that were not representative of the breed. Today some bulls or lines can produce very large calves at birth. Also, some cows make too much milk and are too big at maturity which affects efficiency and body condition maintenance. As the adage goes: There is more variation within breeds than among breeds.
These three photos were taken in mid-January of 2017. These are 5-month bred cows who were wintering their 8 month-old calves. They had mostly been consuming forage that was stockpiled in the previous fall. No energy or protein supplements were offered, only free-choice minerals. Recent research shows that under such conditions the cow may genetically program her fetus to “switch on” genes for digestion of a low-quality, high fiber diet during its lifetime. Indeed Star cattle possess genes that enable them to thrive on low quality forage, based on body condition scores, by improving the processes of feed digestion or nutrient metabolism, or both. Even 2 year-old cows after giving birth to their first calf can be run with the rest of the herd and winter their calves.
Slick gene – 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 (including many traits yet to be discovered) account for her adaptability and the ability to rebreed readily every year without pampering. Presently, calves are DNA tested to know which calves are heterozygous or homozygous dominant for the slick gene. Calves with the latter genotype are being selected so that they will later breed true for this critical trait. A recent study carried out by Poole and coworkers in North Carolina (reported in the Journal of Animal Science, volume 97, pages 1456-1467, 2019) demonstrated that the slick hair mutation (a gene from Senepol) imparted physiological associations that minimized the effects of fescue toxicity and improved heifer reproductive performance compared to non-slick heifers.
Breed complementation – 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 purebred cows 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 and hybrid vigor. 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.
Light coat colors – Body coat colors of STAR cattle range from white to red. Cattle with black body coats fare poorly in south Texas; fertility is subpar in the summer. Instead, this is the ideal time to breed if one wishes to work with Nature and maintain a low-input system. A recent trend at Lukefahr Ranch is the use of mostly light-colored STAR bulls to produce more light-colored (yellow and white) replacements. Soon most STAR cattle will be yellow or white and dun in order to confer additional heat tolerance and external parasite resistance. 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 Lukefahr ranch, genetic selection for fly resistance has been practiced for several generations. At present, most STAR bulls and cows are heterozygous for the dominant slick coat gene. 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 (yellow and with one or two dun genes).
Just enough milk and cow efficiency – In addition, cows are small to moderate in body size (weighing mostly between 1,000 to 1,100 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. While there is no selection for weaning weight, STAR calves grow rapidly and reach maturity early (puberty in heifers is observed as early as 6 to 7 months of age). Another reason is perhaps the high milk quality due to the genetics of the Senepol and(or) Tuli breeds. (It is common of many African breeds to produce less milk although it is of higher quality). Yet another reason is appreciable hybrid vigor for weaning weight due to wide crossbreeding. However, weaning weight averages have dropped some since 2008 due likely to years of severe droughts, in addition to response to continued selection for small-framed cows.
Below is a photo of LR Beth, a 13 year-old cow that is 50% Senepol and 50% Red Angus (some breeders would call this a Senangus). LR Beth has produced 12 calves to date and probably weighs about 1,050 pounds. Note her tight udder and small teats, her slick hair coat, and good body condition. Moreover, her appearance exemplifies that she is not extreme in any way. At the time of the photo she was nursing a 6 month-old bull calf. LR Beth is also the dam of the Tuli-sired cow (LR Dusty) in the above photo. The second photo is a snapshot of her lifetime productivity. Her calves were raised on only milk and grass.
With the emphasis on small, efficient and easy care cows that are adapted to the region, it is figured that three 1,000 pound cows can be run 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!
Wintering heifers: The first photo below is of an approximate 1,100 pound cow with her 9 month-old, Red Angus-sired calf (#45). Since 2013, calves have been wintered on their dams to minimize stress and avoid unnecessary costs of feed supplements, labor, etc., which is another reward of working with Nature. This practice also allows, for example, 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. In 2013 and in the first photo, heifer #45’s 205 day-adjusted weaning weight was 505 pounds. On 8 March 2014, 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 – without providing any energy or protein supplements. Here is a link to an article that I wrote that further describes this practice of wintering calves: SGF-GCC.
Genetics for grass-fed beef: An added value of Star cattle 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.
Each year those few young bulls that are not considered to be of breeding quality have been sold to grass feeders. I also harvest my own beef, which is healthy, tender and has wonderful flavor! This is possible because Star cattle possess genes (inherited mostly from African breeds) for easily getting fat on grass. Below is a photo of a 26 month-old Star heifer that was harvested in August 2020 at a live weight of approximately 950 pounds, and photos of steaks and roasts. This heifer was raised on milk and grass. The carcass graded Choice. Cattle with the genetic ability to easily fatten on grass relates to cows and bulls that can efficiently utilize fat to maintain excellent body condition to ensure: high fertility, high fat content of milk, and marbling in carcasses.
To summarize, Lukefahr Ranch breeds adaptable cattle that can be sustained on forage stockpiled between severe droughts with no energy or protein feed supplementation and that will readily rebreed during the peak summer period and make a good profit on a per acre basis. A recent study from the University of Wyoming revealed that under drought conditions, smaller cows (~1,000 lbs) are more efficient (weight of weaned calf divided by cow body weight) during drought conditions than larger cows (~1,400 lbs) as well as during favorable wet conditions! It is my belief that the development of appropriate cattle genetics will become even more critically important in the near future in the wake of global climate change.
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Located 6 miles south of Kingsville, TX
“Dr. Lukefahr is a very critical breeder who is not afraid to cull. Every animal has to breed as a yearling and again as a two year-old, and every year thereafter. He operates a yearlong grazing management system with minimal inputs which his cattle are well adapted to, as well as being heat and insect resistant” (Burke Teichert, 2020).
“Professors must first become model ranchers” (Johann Zeitsman, Man, Cattle and Veld (2014)(page 165).