By Heather Smith Thomas
October 2010, Western Cowman
Located in the mountains of northern California, Alturas Ranches has a small herd (about 25 cows, plus some heifers) of purebred Lowline Angus, about 200 purebred Angus cows bred to Lowline bulls to produce half-blood Lowlines, and about 150 half-blood cows and heifers bred back to half-blood bulls. The ranch is managed by Sid Howard and has 2 full-time cowboys—Dale McKee and Jeremy “Bear” Joanette.
Owner Barry Swenson bought this ranch in 1998 and grew foragecrops, more than 50,000 tons of hay per year. “We make a lot ofhay that’s good for beef cows, but not dairy quality. We’re along way from the market it costs about $40 a ton to ship. Whenthe price of gas went up, we were bringing other ranchers’cattle in to feed them,” he says. Grazing land came with theranch, but at first he leased it out to other ranchers. Hedidn’t get any cattle of his own until 2003.
“I bought the ranch next door, with a good friend of mine. It came with cattle, and he encouraged me to keep them and get more cows. I was afraid to do this at first, because we’d finally figured out how to do well with the alfalfa and wild rice crops. But we figured that with 50,000 tons of hay we could easily winter 25,000 cows.”
He became interested in raising smaller cattle in 2005, when he realized that the typical steaks served at restaurants were too big to fit on the plate–larger than most people can eat. “They have to cut the steaks too thin, and I like a smaller, thicker steak,” says Swenson. He figured the only way to accomplish this was with smaller cattle.
He started looking at crossing Dexter cattle with Angus to create smaller animals. Then his assistant Leslie Boyle discovered Lowlines. “Leslie was raised in this area. Her father and I went to high school together. Her husband Mike and his crew put up the hay on this ranch. Leslie knows a lot more about cows than I do; she’s been calving heifers, feeding cows, and making alfalfa hay since she was a child. She understands cold winters and all the things we have to do here,” says Swenson.
“I wanted a smaller cow, but I also wanted quality beef. I asked Leslie to look for a smaller kind of cow. She searched on the internet and discovered the Lowlines. Then we tried to locate some,” he says.
“There are no big herds in this part of the country; most are small backyard herds,” says Boyle. “We went to Montana and got 5 bulls to start our halfblood program. We picked up 2 to 4 heifers here and there—in Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington—anywhere in the West that we could find some. We started with about 18, counting bulls and heifers,” she says. They were fairly expensive, often costing $2000 to $5000 per heifer. Heifers are more expensive than bulls, because they are still in such short supply.
“The Lowlines Leslie found were exactly what I wanted. I have a small experimental herd on one of my other ranches, breeding Lowlines to Dexters, trying to breed the horns off the Dexters and breed more beef into them, but I haven’t gotten very far; the Lowlines by themselves are better beef animals,” says Swenson.
“When I was a kid and my dad had cattle in the 1940’s, Angus cows weighed 800-900 pounds. After that, every cowman tried to have bigger cattle, to brag about having bigger calves. To most people, bigger is always better! My dad bought Simmentals and got some 700-pound calves—when everyone else had 500-pound calves. But the pasture that used to carry 200 cows would only carry about half that number because those big cows ate so much,” says Swenson.
On his present ranch he has BLM grazing land. “We’ve looked back in the history and certain allotments were running 1000 head, and now they are allotted only 500. There are other factors involved, but a some of the reduced carrying capacity is due to cows being twice as big as they used to be,” he says.
In his father’s herd, calves were large at birth and cows had calving problems. “We lost so many calves, and that was terrible. So I’ve always wondered if big is actually better or not. I am glad Leslie found the Lowlines,” he says.
These cows not only have small calves and easy births, but are also very feed efficient. “A study in North Dakota at the university showed this to be true,” he says. This study compared several breeds and found that in average pounds of retail product produced by x amount of feed, the Lowline was far and away the winner. Fed the same amounts of feed, Shorthorns produced 86.1 pounds of retail product, Wagyu produced 83.1 pounds, Angus produced 110 pounds, and Lowlines produced 154.3 pounds; there was more meat and less waste on a Lowline carcass for the same amount of feed.
“Everyone seems to have selected cattle for larger frames—without paying enough attention to other qualities. Hereford cows used to be 900 to 1000 pounds when Angus were 800 to 900 pounds. Now Herefords are 1500 to 1600 pounds and Angus are 1400 pound cows,” says Swenson.
They take longer to grow, and don’t mature as quickly as smaller animals, and take a lot more feed before they are ready to butcher. The Lowlines mature quicker, with a high quality carcass, and also reach reproductive age sooner, and have better breedback. “There are some farms in Australia and New Zealand raising Lowlines, and down there, Lowlines are having calves at 15 months of age and do just fine,” he says. The beef industry needs to move back toward a smaller, more efficient animal.
Barry often goes to Argentina, Australia or New Zealand for winter, and finds it interesting that Angus and Hereford breeders there try to keep their cows at about 800-900 pounds. “They don’t want big, inefficient cows. You drive down the road and look at the cows and think they’re heifers, except they have calves on them!” Big cows’ calves may wean at 50 percent or less of the cow’s body weight, compared with a smaller cow’s calf that may be 60 percent or more of her own weight.
Efficiency is the name of the game, and Lowlines excel in this important quality. As stated by Swenson’s 20-year-old granddaughter, Hannah Current (who wrote a paper about Alturas Ranches), efficiency in their operation is not merely a priority, but a standard. “These ranches continue to demonstrate superior productivity in everything—from the breed of cows they chose, to research conducted. Barry Swenson consistently encourages and implements new ways of raising and feeding his cattle, even when the experts don’t recommend it,” wrote Current.
“Swenson went to Australia several times during the Royal Brisbane Show and observed that Lowline Angus cattle consistently won both categories of the Standards Australian Eating Quality Award,” wrote Current. This fact, and the research in North Dakota on feed efficiency, led Swenson to acquire Lowline cattle.
“Starting as an experiment, and growing into a full-fledged operation, the last several years of breeding Lowline Angus at Alturas Ranches have been a great endeavor. The efficiency of Lowlines in converting pounds of feed to pounds of retail product has enabled Alturas Ranches to make great strides in achieving low-input costs for a great return,” explains Current.
The ranch makes some of their hay into pellets, which are easy to feed. “It costs us $100 per ton for the pellets,” says Swenson. “We put $80 hay into them and it costs us $20 per ton to make them. There is a pellet mill here on the ranch in Alturas. With this feed, we get a pound of gain for 30 cents per pound. Most feedlots have a cost of 60 to 90 cents per pound. When feeding hay, people figure 8 or 9 pounds of hay per pound of gain. We had 6 pounds of hay per pound of gain in one study we did,” says Swenson.
“In a feedlot, on grain and concentrates, cattle can convert 5 pounds of feed into a pound of gain, but grain and all the things they put in their special mixes (soybeans, etc.) may cost $200 per ton, versus forages at $100 per ton. There is a big difference between feeding hay and feeding a hot mixture. We don’t have that kind of feed here; all we grow is hay. It would be interesting to see what Lowlines would do on feedlot concentrates, but if they do so well at converting hay to gain, you really wouldn’t need grain. On a cow-calf operation you don’t want to feed grain at all,” he says.
“Another thing we did was a taste test. We fed some steers 70 percent alfalfa and 30 percent wheat hay in pellet form. Another group was fed 70 percent oat hay and 30 percent alfalfa. It was surprising to find that the beef that tasted best was from the steers fed the oat/alfalfa mix. It didn’t have so much vitamin A in it, with so much grassy taste,” he says.
For this test they had 20 people try the two types of beef, without knowing which was which. A variety of beef cuts were used, including T-bone steaks, rib steaks, London broil and hamburger. “The only type of beef that the high-alfalfa fed steers won in the taste test was hamburger!”
“Lowlines often win the taste test in the Royal Easter show in Australia. Whether it’s because they’re smaller and the meat is finer grained, I don’t know, but in Australia and New Zealand they figure the Lowline is the most tasty,” says Swenson.
The ranch has been selling grass-finished steers as natural beef, and they’ve been very pleased with the half-blood Lowlines’ ability to finish on grass without the “yellow” fat that people don’t want. These cattle marble nicely and put on minimal backfat.
“The man who buys a lot of our beef sells some of our steaks in the Santa Barbara area for up to $30 per pound. He has created a gourmet niche market, and wants more of these cattle; we are not making them fast enough!” says Swenson.
Some of their half-blood steers have been 4-H and FFA projects. The first year in this youth program, the Lowline half-bloods placed first in their weight division and graded Prime when ultrasounded, competing very well against the larger commercial steers they showed against. The Low-line half-bloods finished at about half the expected feed cost for traditional 4-H projects, illustrating the efficiency of Lowline cattle. The half-blood steers weighed 1050 to 1250 at show time.
Half-blood Lowline heifers are bringing a good price, as more ranchers are starting herds. Heifers sell for $2 per pound–about twice as much as heifers of other breeds. Swenson is finding it hard to expand his own herd because his heifers are in such high demand from other ranchers.
There’s a strong trend among some cattlemen to get back to more moderate size cattle, after several decades of getting them too big. This is one way to do it, infusing some Lowline breeding into a cow herd.
“This can be done with just one cross,” explains Leslie Boyle. The quickest, easy way is to breed heifers to a Lowline bull. They calve easier, and the resulting calves are more moderate framed. “Using Lowline bulls, either fullblood or halfblood, on our commercial heifers has virtually eliminated calving problems, and the heifers breed back quicker, as there is less stress at calving. Another advantage with Lowline bulls is that gestation length for their calves is about 7 to 14 days shorter,” she says. This ensures that calves are small at birth, and also gives their young mothers more time to get ready for rebreeding. A higher percent of these first-calf heifers will breed back on time and not be open or late the next year.
Ease of calving is a big plus, with the Lowline. “We recently had some guests here that weren’t cattle people, and I was telling them how hard the cowboys work, on a ranch, like during calving season when the ground is frozen. Dale and Bear—our two cowboys—said they used to have to work hard during calving season, but don’t have to do that so much now, with the Lowlines. They don’t have to stay up all night anymore,” says Swenson.
Origin of Lowline Angus Cattle
Angus were known as an easy calving breed, but no longer have that reputation because frame size has increased so much. The Lowline is a move back toward what Angus were earlier. “This is exactly what Lowlines are,” says Boyle. “They were started from original Angus genetics.”
The Trangie Agricultural Research Centre in Australia kept 2 Angus herds for many years. “They kept one herd basically the same size they were when they were first imported from Scotland,” says Swenson. The other herd was selected for larger, high-growth cattle.
This research center was created in 1929 to provide high quality Angus genetics to the Australian cattle industry, with seedstock purchased from Scotland, Canada, the U.S. and Australia. The research herd was closed to outside genetics in 1964. As part of their performance testing they kept track of weight gain, structural measurements, visual assessments, and did selective breeding to achieve certain goals.
The trial that led to Lowline cattle was begun in 1974, to evaluate selection for growth rate on herd profitability—to see whether large or small cattle were more efficient converters of grass to meat. For this experiment the Trangie herd was divided into 3 groups, based on yearling growth rates. The high growth rate yearlings were called High Lines, the low growth rate yearlings were called Low Lines, and a randomly selected group was called Control Lines.
The trial focused on detailed evaluations regarding feed intake, weight gain, reproductive performance, milk production, carcass yield and structural correctness. The Low Line herd consisted initially of 85 low growth rate (small-framed) cows, mated to yearling bulls that were also selected for low growth rate from birth to yearling age (low yearling weights), and this herd remained closed to outside genetics. All replacement bulls and heifers were selected from within that line, based on low growth performance. The 3 lines of cattle grew apart during the selection process; after 15 years the Lowlines were 30 percent smaller than the Highline cattle.
“They did this many years, and then became tired of doing the project because ranchers always wanted big cattle. They were about to get rid of the small ones, and one smart Australian fellow decided they should do something more with the Lowlines and not just abandon the study,” says Swenson.
A group of interested cattlemen persuaded the Department of Agriculture to sell the Lowlines on the open market. In August 1992 they sold 9 bulls, 23 heifers and 7 cows to 7 purchasers, and in October 1993 sold the rest in a complete dispersal (20 bulls, 44 cows and 51 heifers). “They started a Lowline Angus Association and are making great strides with this breed in Australia,” says Swenson.
At birth, calves weigh 45 to 53 pounds. They grow rapidly at first because the cows give lots of milk, and double their birth weight in the first 6 weeks. At 8 months the heifers average 240 pounds and bulls 300 pounds. As yearlings, heifers weigh about 420 pounds and the bulls 510 pounds. Mature cows weigh about 700 to 750 pounds and bulls weigh about 880 pounds.
“I’ve read that all Angus cattle in America hark back to an original importation of 2 bulls from Scotland. Today, if you want to increase heterosis within the breed, it makes sense to use Lowline cattle, because they didn’t come from the same 2 bulls. We’ve noticed some real vigor in our calves when Lowlines are bred to our Angus herd. Our cattle range in very rough country, and the halfblood Lowlines do very well,” he says.
If a producer wants to stay within the Angus breed, using Lowlines gives the most heterosis. “You can downsize from too-big cattle and get a shot of heterosis at the same time,” explains Boyle.
Research on Winter Temperature and Feed Efficiency
Alturas Ranches are located in the mountains of northern California—and winters are cold. The cowboys have to break ice on water troughs every morning. The cattle always eat more during cold weather, since it takes more calories to keep warm (and the heat of digestion helps warm the body). Swenson wondered if part of this increase in feed requirement was due to drinking such cold water and wondered if this affected feed efficiency.
“I called every cattle magazine, every university, and every company that sells water troughs that don’t freeze, and asked if there are any studies to show if it makes any difference whether cattle have warm water versus cold water, but there are no studies they were aware of. Here at our ranch there’s ice every morning and the cows come running to drink when the cowboys break the ice. That water isn’t much over 32 degrees. A cow’s body temperature is about 101 degrees. She has to warm up the 10 gallons of water she drinks, and that takes energy/calories,” says Swenson.
“I called Cal Poly to see if they had any data on this. I paid a student to do a couple months of looking to see if he could find any studies that had been done. Finally he and the professor said there was no research that they could find, and why don’t I just do a test myself.”
He had his cowboys put 5 steers in a pen with temperate water, and 5 steers in a pen where they had to break ice every day. “We fed them for 90 days (during January, February and March—our coldest time of year). We found that our theory was right. Steers in the warm water pen took 6 pounds of feed per pound of gain, and these in the cold water pen took 7,” he says.
“We were feeding them a mixture of 70 percent alfalfa and 30 percent wheat hay, pelletized so we could measure it easily and have little waste. We have a pellet mill, so that made it easy to create feed for this experiment—with pellets made from the same forage (a controlled consistency). Our trial proved that we saved 1/6 of our feed. The warmer water can make a big difference if you have a lot of cattle,” says Swenson.
“We feed 2000-3000 cattle here during winter. This was enough feed difference that we decided to change all our water troughs and have them insulated. We have relatively cheap electricity and the expense to pump the water was much less than the cost of feed. We figured it out and realized that with 3000 head we would save $45,000 worth of hay. It only costs $18 per month to keep a one-horse-power pump running continuously. We are fortunate because we have hot springs here, and our well water comes out of the ground at 70 to 80 degrees. So this winter we’ll have well water flow continuously through the water troughs, and not worry about wasting water. We might have to keep 3 pumps going, which would cost $60 per month, for 3 months. That would cost about $200 during the coldest months to keep water flowing through, but would save thousands of dollars worth of hay,” he explains. The cattle would need only about 2/3 the hay they usually eat during winter.
“We recently had visitors from Alaska and were talking about hot water versus cold water, and how much feed it saves. They said that where they live, where weather is even colder, it makes an unbelievable difference. They had a bunch of horses, and when they gave them warm water, the horses only ate half as much hay,” says Swenson.
“The warm water was about a mile away from the feed. The horses had access to cold water where their feed was, but preferred to walk a mile to get a drink of warm water, rather than use the cold water.”
Importance of Efficiency
“We want to do our feed efficiency test again, using 5 black baldy heifers and 5 purebred Lowline heifers. We can measure to the pound, with the pelleted forage. We’ll know the results of this by the end of March next year. We eventually want to compare the end result—amount of retail product. I think you get a better comparison this way, than just measuring pounds of animal, because the Lowline has shorter legs and less waste—a higher percentage of body weight is meat. We’ll compare just pounds to pounds in this current test, but even if we get 20 percent more efficiency, that will be huge.”
Swenson points out that the chicken and fish industries have greatly increased their production efficiency. “With chickens it used to take about 4 pounds of grain to make a pound of chicken, and now it’s down to about 2 pounds. With fish, it takes about 1 pound to make a pound of fish, and pigs take about 3 pounds of feed per pound of meat. With cattle, if you use concentrates it’s 5 or 6 pounds to make a pound of beef, or 10 pounds of hay,” he says. The big advantage to cattle is that they can convert forage to meat, and don’t need grain—like chickens or pigs do—and can utilize marginal land that can’t grow crops. Lowlines are the real heroes, however, because they are able to convert grass to beef even more efficiently than most other breeds.