Quest for a Cow That Thrives on Hot Sun and Brown Grass

Scorching summer of '98 points up ranchers' need to develop drought-resistant - but lean and tasty - cattle.

In the furnace of a south Texas summer, even the cowboys can wilt a little. But this year, the second drought since 1996, is shaping up as the ultimate challenge for man - and especially beast.

All the hot weather here is leading ranchers to size up their herds and ask, Will the best drought-resistant cow please step forward (or at least moo a little)?

After decades of cross-breeding, candidates abound for the dry-spell crown: Beefmaster, Droughtmaster, and something called Grassmaster; longhorns, shorthorn crosses, and just about anything bred with Brahman. To become the top entry, it's not enough to survive the elements. The winner also must grow quickly, produce calves consistently, and fetch a pretty price from finicky consumers - a neat trick in a year of brown grass and rock-bottom prices.

Texas breeders must find the right balance if they're to survive the drought-stricken '90s. Some may have achieved it already. Bouncing along a stretch of the King Ranch, Hal Hawkins looks over flat grassland that is - surprisingly - green.

"Environment is our biggest challenge," he says. "Ten days ago, this was all brown. Two weeks from now it could be brown again. It's up and down, up and down.... I call it the nutritional roller coaster."

As animal physiologist for the King Ranch, the largest privately owned spread in the United States, Mr. Hawkins oversees the health of some 60,000 head of cattle. This year the operation is weathering not only severe drought (which has sucked about $450 million out of Texas ranches) but also a management shakeup.

Despite all this, the King Ranch appears to have made out pretty well. Its secret weapon may be its cattle: a breed started a decade ago called Santa Cruz. Big and dark red, the Santa Cruz are hardy, but they also produce leaner meat, which today's consumers demand.

"They seem to be holding up real good," says Jack Jamison, who runs a cattle ranch in Beggs, Okla., and bought Santa Cruz for the first time this year. "We are as dry as any place you'll ever see. But they seem to be holding their own."

The King Ranch is hardly alone in trying to breed the best cow for this dry land. "Certainly the cattle that are in many of the enterprises are a better fit than they were 20 years ago," says F. Michael Byers, professor of animal science at Texas A&M University in College Station. "And we expect that to improve even further."

But it's a tricky business. Often, it involves crossing tropical cattle, which can endure the heat, with European breeds, which grow more quickly and produce more tender meat. It's even more difficult to get a strain recognized as a breed.

"Everyone who is in this [business] trying to do something different is half-goofy," says David Bamberger, a founder of Churchs Chicken who has worked for years to develop a new breed of cattle. So far, some three dozen ranchers have been using his Grassmaster bulls for breeding.

But industry recognition is elusive. One problem with Grassmasters, as with many composite cattle, is "there are no two that look alike," Mr. Bamberger says.

MEANWHILE, scientists are at work finding even better drought-resistant cattle. "The direction of the industry is to move to these composite breeds that try to combine the good traits of a number of breeds," says Chad Chase Jr. of the US Department of Agriculture's Subtropical Agricultural Research Station in Brooksville, Fla.

One of the most promising breeds is the Romosinuano. Originally a European breed, it adapted over decades to the tropical conditions of Colombia. US researchers are currently studying how the breed would hold up in North America.

By breeding it with other varieties, ranchers will create new kinds of cattle, more suited to the environment than even today's dry-spell winners.

In fact, researchers are trying for cattle suited to specific locales. "We've gotten away from one ideal breed," says Dr. Byers. "The challenge is to create breeds that fit particular environmental niches."

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