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” cattle fit into this adverse 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 base from the Senepol and Tuli breeds for heat tolerance and drought adaptation to this harsh region. 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 in south Texas no more than 50% Red Angus is critical to maintain adaptability. Black Angus cattle are originally from Scotland where black color absorbs solar radiation to keep animals warmer – a phenomenon called thermal melanism. In south Texas and in much of the U.S., cattle need to stay cooler not hotter! Having either appropriate or inappropriate genetics can make or break your cattle business.
STAR 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 while working closely with Nature.
In economic terms, 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 nearly 15 years now. In 2014, the feed cost per cow was under $4.00. In 2014 the total direct and overhead costs was $414 per cow. Pounds weaned per cow exposed was 578 pounds and the cost per pound was only 52 cents. A recent study from North Dakota reported that in 2014 the total direct and overhead costs per cow averaged $648 (over 1.5 times higher). Pounds weaned per cow exposed was 471 pounds and the cost per pound was 1.38. Our costs per pound figure of 52 cents is less than half of this figure. Meanwhile, production costs continue to increase for the industry and in recent months beef prices have plummeted. One key to profitability is to keep input costs down by avoiding unnecessary costs. In 2015, the total direct and overhead costs averaged only $276 per cow. In addition, the pregnancy rate for 2015 was 97%. Despite brutally high temperature and humidity levels and exceptional drought during the breeding season (mid-July through August), 89% of cows conceived in their first heat cycle. Cows at Lukefahr Ranch are not pampered; they either adapt or they are culled.
In the March 18 weekly issue of Beef Magazine, an article by Nevil Speer reported that annual total production costs per cow have soared in recent years, reaching about $900 in 2015. One of the reasons for this problem is that cattle have been selected to be larger (being less efficient) and that management has focused on pampering such cattle. Years ago when the Star composite was first formed, the emphasis was on selecting and breeding moderate-sized cattle from adaptable and functional breeds (or lines thereof), including African genetics, and then crossing these breeds to make them all-the-more hardy via hybrid vigor.
More specifically about STAR cattle, a typical STAR cow weighs about 1,000 pounds. The three cows pictured below are 1/2 Tuli, 1/4 Senepol, and 1/4 Red Angus. They have 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 for breeding from such cows. In one generation of mating a Star bull to large cows (1,400 ponds and heavier), a dramatic downsize to small and more efficient cows is possible. Bigger is NOT always better! The other photos of STAR cattle: a yellow 2 year-old heifer, a red heifer calf, a yellow dun heifer calf, three mature Star bulls, a yearling red bull, a 6 month-old yellow-dun bull calf, a white bull calf, and a yellow-dun bull calf.
Summer Breeding: By mid-July it will be the start of the 45-day breeding season at Lukefahr Ranch. This year, five Star bulls will be used. Bulls are matched with cows in separate breeding pastures in such a way as to balance the proportions of genes from Red Angus, Senepol, and Tuli to near equal proportions of 33%, while minimizing inbreeding and maximizing hybrid vigor of the calf, as well as increasing the chances of producing a calf that is slick and light colored (white or dun). On 1 July, three young Star bulls (12-1/2 to 14-1/2 months of age) were fertility tested by a local veterinarian. They were pastured raised without grain or other energy or protein supplements. All three bulls passed the test. The photo on the left is an AI son of WC-950K (Senepol), the middle photo is a son of LR Grey Bull (MGS: Blondie (Senepol)), and the right photo is a son of R2R PCC Simon (Red Angus). Bull #29 is for sale.
It’s Spring time! This year, most calves born are slick and light colored in a breeding effort to confer additional heat tolerance in combination with the many genes of African origin for tropical adaptation. Also, for years now I have observed fewer flies on lighter-colored cattle. To date, average birth weight is only 69 pounds. Below are photos of white and light dun-colored calves. Most calves are slick-hided which is due to a dominant gene from the Senepol breed. White and dun color dilution is due to genes found in the Tuli breed.
In mid-March, about 5.5 inches of rain was received. Cows replenished their body condition before calving – mostly in May. This year, cow pregnancy rate is 100% and heifer pregnancy rate is 90%. The figure for 1st estrus pregnancy rate is 93.9%. This fertile cohort group calved within 36 days. However, this figure excludes the record of the first calf that was born 11 days before the second calf!
Below are photos taken in mid-April. In early March, cows weaned their calves at 10 months of age. The strong African genetic influence likely accounts for their ability to quickly remobilize body nutrient reserves once pasture conditions improve (early spring grass), which is the epitome of “survival of the fittest” under thousands of years of natural selection pressure in harsh tropical environments.
In March as winter drew to a close, calves were weaned from their dams at 10 months of age. The photo below shows bull calves 2 days after weaning. Their dams are in the far background on the opposite side of the fence. The cows had 6 to 8 weeks to get fat on early spring grass before calving. This winter, no hay or energy or protein supplements were fed to cattle. By mid-March, the average feed cost per cow was $0.0.
Below are photos taken in early March that show the body condition of cows that had just weaned their calves and who were approximately 7 months pregnant – still 2 months away from giving birth to their next calf, which will be by late April to early May. (Most calves will be born in May.) One of the cows, LR Beth, is a 13 year-old cow that has raised 11 calves.
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 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 (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.
This 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 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.
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. 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 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, although research is underway to map the dun gene(s). Below is a photo of a STAR cow that is slick and light colored (yellow and with one or two dun genes).
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. Below is a photo of LR Beth, a 12 year-old cow that is 50% Senepol and 50% Red Angus (some breeders would call this a Senangus). LR Beth has produced 11 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 the photo was taken in late October 2015, 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.
Wintering heifers: The first photo below is of an approximate 1,000 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.
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.
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.
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) are 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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“Professors must first become model ranchers” (Johann Zeitsman, Man, Cattle and Veld (2014)(page 165).