By Hannah Johlman, The Ledger – Spring 2019
Cherry County, Neb., is the largest county in the state, with nearly 4 million acres of prime grass country and more mother cows than any other county in the United States. More than 100 years ago, Dan Adamson arrived in Cherry County from Ireland, and his offspring have remained there ever since. His third, fourth and fifth generations currently live and work on the family ranch near Cody, Neb.
When third-generation Jerry Adamson was growing up on the ranch, Cherry County was in the heart of Hereford country, but it wasn’t long before Rocking J Ranch began to transition to black-hided cattle: Angus, Simmental-Angus, Limousin-Angus and Chianina-Angus. The Adamsons have always looked for efficient cattle, and they found them in 1999 at the National Western Stock Show right around the time Aberdeen cattle were making their way to the United States.
“[We] and some other cattlemen were interested in them and, as a result, we went over to Australia to see them,” Jerry says. “The tour was educational. We had never seen cattle as small framed as the purebred Aberdeens.”
While in Australia, Jerry and his wife, Deloris, found that Aberdeen cattle were so easy fleshing that they actually had to exercise them if they were in a more confined area to keep the breeding animals from getting too fat. The trip resulted in the couple purchasing embryos and semen out of a bull called Brenton, the highest performing bull they saw.
At the time, Jerry and his son, Todd, were noticing some issues in their cow herd. For many years they had been taught that the biggest weaning weight heifer calves were the best replacements and that the heaviest bull calves should be retained as bulls for large-framed cows.
“Therefore, it didn’t make any difference what breed was out there, they were going to get big, and we found that, because of that selection criteria, our cows were too big and they weren’t paying their way on this grass,” Todd says. “We couldn’t expect a 1,400-pound cow to eat grass and wean 50 percent of her body weight.”
In Australia, efficiency was measured not by pounds at weaning, but by how many pounds of beef could be raised per acre of grass. Jerry began to realize that there was a tipping point (similar to fertilizing a corn field, where efficiency diminishes), and began switching the ranch’s focus to the Australian method.
The Aberdeen cattle he saw in Australia reminded Jerry of the first pen of Angus cattle he showed in Chicago more than 50 years earlier that weighed 1,050 pounds. When cross-bred to
Chianina-Angus, bulls were capable of weaning calves weighing more than half their body weight.
“Not that we will get back to doing exactly that, but we knew we had to get back to the smaller-framed cow, bred to a crossbred bull of some sort,” Todd says. “We needed to get back to that
efficiency to best sell our grass.”
Initially, the Adamsons crossed fullblood Aberdeen bulls with their first-calf heifers, a win-win for calving ease and delivering a smaller-framed cow. The best heifers were kept as replacements, and the process continued as they worked to cycle the cow herd. Eventually, they switched to half-blood Aberdeen-Angus bulls to keep the resulting calves from getting too small to fit their end goal.
“Our intent from the get go was to create a more efficient herd that would fit into the commercial industry,” Todd says. “The [Aberdeen-influenced] cattle are easier fleshing and, in general, they will wean a higher percentage of their body weight than the average cow.” In the past, the family tried to break into the locker-beef segment and saw that was where Aberdeen cattle truly shined, but unfortunately, they discovered they lacked the manpower to do the job justice.
“The beef is a finer-textured meat thereby being very tasteful and very tender,” Jerry says. “It’s a great product.”
The Adamsons found that because of their easy fleshing ability, the Aberdeen-cross cattle could easily be grass or grain finished. Although, in their part of the world, most people are accustomed to the flavor of grain-finished beef.
“What we found is that people want something tender and a smaller portion size, and they want consistency and they want to know where it came from,” Todd says. “There is a huge market for those four things, and these cattle fit that as well as anything out there.”
But with a limited crew to calve out 1,350 cows, put in up to 500 embryos a year and put up more than 4,000 bales a year, all while continuing to do the necessary cow work, which they do horseback, creating a niche market out of the Aberdeen-cross cattle will have to wait.
As profit margins get slimmer by the year, Todd says the family looks to diversify and become more efficient. For now, the Aberdeen-cross cattle fit well into that formula.
“We’ve never been prejudiced toward any one breed,” Jerry says. “We think a lot of breeds are good, but we are definitely of the opinion, and it is well documented that with [crossbreeding], whether it be cattle or hogs or flowers or vegetables, nobody can argue with hybrid vigor.”