Tuesday, April 04, 2017

The Modern Empire of the Saddle

by Brantley Hargrove

A cattleman squints beneath the brim of his straw hat at an animal that may soon fetch a price equivalent to that of a Mercedes-Benz Roadster. Fall has come to the R.A. Brown Ranch, and with it a pleasant breeze out of the south. The air is heavy with the vinegary tang of silage feed and the warm, sweet smell of cattle. Donnell Brown passes a pen containing purebred Angus bulls with necks like twin bridge cables connecting broad skulls to muscled shoulders. At the next, he whistles at his finest mamas, dams with briskets the size of basketballs and rib-eyes so finely marbled it’d be a shame to put a knife to them. Brown knows this for a fact because he personally quality controls the rib-eye of every animal on the ranch with an ultrasound, just like an obstetrician peering into an expectant mother’s belly. The pedigrees here are so carefully cultivated, the matings so thoughtfully curated, that the meat actually isn’t his most valuable asset. These pampered ungulates are vessels for favorable traits, not hamburger on the hoof. The commodity is the semen, the ovum, the DNA, which he keeps on ice in a cylinder filled with liquid nitrogen. Brown is what you’d call a “seedstock” man. He sells to other ranchers seeking to imbue their own herds with rarefied genetics. And he’s got them. Nearly 60 percent of his stock is rated USDA Prime — the crème de la crème — a concentration of top beef that is practically unheard of in the world of animal husbandry. This, of course, did not happen overnight. And the how of it is both technological and generational in nature. Beneath the wrought-iron pipe fence separating us from prized bulls that weigh nearly a ton apiece, there are handprints pressed into the concrete, some small and others belonging to men. There are his own, and Rob’s, his father. There are Tucker’s, his oldest boy. The smallest print is Lanham’s, his youngest. “There’s three generations of Browns in that concrete,” he says. If one were to trace the pedigree of the Brown clan like any Red Angus heifer, documentation would put them on Texas rangeland at least as early as 1895. Browns have crisscrossed this prairie, from east of Waco on up to North Texas, on horseback for more than a century hence. That’s five generations now, coming up on six. Even rarer than a 60 percent Prime herd is this kind of longevity in an often capricious and unpredictable business...more

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