Living the Longhorn Legacy
By Pat Petzel
The old west is alive and grazing in Belmont County.
Interstate 70 bares little resemblance to the Oregon Trail, and Darol Dickinson isn’t a 19th century cattle baron, but at times the view from this Belmont County ranch might seem like a scene from the Old West. The large herd of colorful Texas Longhorn cattle grazing the hillsides of this reclaimed strip-mine land could truly be a scene from the 1870s, but as the case with so many things, what’s old is new again.
What’s old is the cattle breed itself. The original Longhorns came to America via the Spanish in the late 1400s. Because they were used as oxen and because the long voyage was so important, “Only the best came over,” Dickinson said with pride. The cattle’s history in what would eventually become the United States mirrors the progression of the young country’s western expansion.
What’s new about this breed of cattle is a marketing creativity that has become common with certain types of agriculture. “Texas Longhorns are easy to sell.” Dickinson said. “I don’t know how to sell Angus.”
Dickinson calls it his “gas station theory.” Eventually there is a gas station on every corner until someone is priced out of business. “Everyone can’t do the same thing and make money at it.” Raising and selling Longhorn cattle is a way of differentiating himself from other breeds in the cattle business.
It could be debated whether he and his family are in the cattle business at all. Whereas most cattle are bred for growth, meat or milk characteristics, today’s Longhorns are bred for their colorful, speckled patterns and supersized horns. And as Dickinson recognizes, good marketers sell an image in addition to an actual product. Many of Dickinson Cattle Company’s customers “buy Longhorns to decorate their pastures,” he said. One buyer was an archeologist from Michigan who found the Longhorns to be similar to cattle he studied in Biblical times. So the archeologist bought a bull and seven cows so he could raise the cattle himself.
There is a certain irony that the cattle, which faced irrelevance and extinction a century ago, today graze pastureland that was faced with a similar fate 30 years ago. The company’s 5,000 acres of reclaimed strip-mine land has been in its own revitalization process as it has been transformed into highly managed and highly valuable pasture. The Dickinson operation uses a modified rotational grazing system, with the goal of resting each pasture for at least 45 days between grazing, allowing time for each pasture to re-seed.
In the 1970s the pastures would have been unrecognizable, with 250 deep coal mines. Once the mining ended, the coal company was legally obligated to restore the land. The limestone subsoil was mixed with topsoil to create what Dickinson considers good pasture ground. Steep banks were reinforced to prevent erosion, and eight inches of topsoil was restored and planted to improve pasture.
In 1993 while driving on I-70 through this eastern part of Ohio, the Dickinson family saw that this land could be ideal for pastureland. Dickinson Cattle Company now has up to 1,600 head of cattle on 43 separate, fenced pastures.
The Way West
Some of the breed’s virtues played a role in how the Longhorn became such an integral part of the history of the Old West. The physical stamina, hard hooves and ability to survive eating brush, tree leaves and briars in addition to pasture made them well adapted to the harsh conditions of western ranges. The cattle could be driven thousands of miles north across Indian country to railheads at Abilene and Dodge City, according to an article about the breed’s history in Readers Digest. “Early cattle barons knew that the migration to the west would increase demand for the cattle,” the article said. “Lush prairie grasses could, in three years, convert a $4 yearling into a $20 or $30 steer or heifer, so cattlemen could parlay 30,000 Longhorns into a half-million dollars. These men invested in land at about 75 cents an acre, quickly became the West’s cattle barons and made Texas financially stable.”
The Longhorn’s popularity was fleeting, as British breeds such as the Hereford became the cattle of choice. Longhorns as a breed were threatened because of the cross breeding with British breeds and the increased demand for animal fat. According to a history brochure from the International Texas Longhorn Association, “When candles were the world’s chief source of light, tallow, or animal fat, was the main ingredient for candle making. Tallow is obtained by rendering animal fat and thus the most fatty cattle breeds were more popular than the leaner breeds like the Longhorns. “Hide and tallow” companies, as early beef processing plants were known, were a major industry in the early days of the industrial revolution. Prior to the advent of refrigeration, meat was essentially a by-product. The demand for tallow and hides was the driving force of the cattle business and genetics were selected for the heaviest tallow-producing animals.”
Once again a trend has come full circle. Today leanness is considered an attribute for cattle. In fact, some cattle breeders have found success in crossbreeding Longhorns to other breeds so that some of the Longhorn’s positive traits – resistance to certain diseases, ruggedness, fertility and longevity – can be passed on to their progeny. It seems the modern day Longhorns have found a balance between practicality and novelty for those in the cattle business like the Dickinson family.
“People want what’s different,” he said.
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