TUSCOLA, Texas -- Even if you've never seen him before, Amigo Yates looks familiar. Reddish hair. Big brown eyes. He's 11 years old, weighs maybe 1,300 pounds. His horns measure 103 inches from tip to tip and spiral outward in what old-time cowmen call a "Texas twist."
Amigo Yates is a longhorn steer, a champion of his kind, a classic. He could be the model for the longhorn that shows up everywhere in Texas on signs, billboards, TV commercials, menus, company stationery, business cards, calendars.
The longhorn is the totem of Texas, its sacred beast, its quintessential symbol. Because of the longhorn, the horseback laborer who tended him became America's most popular folk hero. Because of the longhorn, the world thinks of Texas the way it does.
All of which means nothing to Amigo Yates, standing under the broiling sun in a pasture outside Tuscola, a tiny town south of Abilene. He sees his owner, Fayette Yates, roll down the dusty ranch road in a truck. He thinks maybe Yates is bringing him something to eat. A small afternoon treat. He trots toward the truck.
"Nothing for you," Yates tells him. "You're greedy."
Amigo Yates hangs around a while anyway, huffing, still hoping, then moves slowly off toward the trees.
Yates takes off his gimme cap, wipes the sweat from his thinning white hair and gazes admiringly after the steer. "Ain't he nice?" he says. "Real full-blood longhorns like him are getting pretty damn scarce. I doubt that there's 3,000 or 4,000 of them in the United States."
Well, it depends on whom you ask.
Tim Miller of Great Bend, Kan., president of the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America, disagrees with Yates. The longhorn is doing just fine, he says. The great-horned beast, believed to be near extinction only 50 years ago, now numbers in the tens of thousands.
"When our association started in 1964, there were only 1,400 longhorn cattle left in the world," Miller says. "But since then we've registered 250,000 head. And those are only the best animals. There are thousands more that their owners don't consider fine enough to register. But they're real longhorns, too.
"Today's longhorn is the same animal that was going up the trails in the 1860s and '70s," Miller says. "They're just not slab-sided and rail-thin like they were then. They're taken care of now."
Yates, whose grandfather Ira drove thousands of longhorns up the Chisholm and other great cattle trails, scoffs.
"I've ate more cattle than them sumbitches have ever seen," he says. "I know a real longhorn when I see one. Them cattle they're calling longhorns ain't longhorns. Their heads ain't right, their bodies ain't right, their necks ain't right, their tails ain't right."
One thing both men can agree on is that, while the Hereford, the Angus and all other breeds were created by man through selective breeding, the Texas longhorn is the result of natural selection and survival of the fittest. "It's the only cattle breed in this country that nature created," says Miller.
Its evolution began in 1493, when Columbus brought a load of cattle from Spain to Santo Domingo on his second voyage to the New World. Two centuries later, Franciscan friars drove cattle across the Rio Grande into Texas to provide beef for their missions.
Over the years, some of the animals strayed or were chased away by Indians. They became wild animals, breeding in the wilderness.
Only the smart and the strong could survive the rigors of the harsh Texas wilderness and weather. Over time they developed into a new type of cattle: the Texas longhorn, a breed as tough as the land that spawned it.
"They do so well on their own that people don't have to mess with them," says Walter Schreiner, whose family has raised longhorns for four generations on the YO Ranch near Mountain )) Home, Texas. The YO's herd of 1,500 is the largest in the world.
"They live a long time. They produce a calf every year. They have very strong mothering instincts and will gang up to protect their calves from coyotes and panthers. They can walk a long way to water. They can survive on marginal land during a drought. They'll eat out of the trees like a deer. When it gets real, real dry, they'll even eat cactus."
The YO's cattle are docile, but the old wild ones were no more domestic than the buffalo and antelope that shared the prairie with them. Prince Carl von Solms-Braunfels, founder of New Braunfels, Texas, reported that his German colonists hunted longhorns like big game, but they were very hard to kill.
When Texas troops returned from four years of Civil War, they found the old Cotton Kingdom dead, nearly all their neighbors broke and 5 million wild cattle roaming the land, free of charge to anyone who could catch them.
Between 1866 and 1890, 10 million cattle moved over the trails out of Texas. They added 200 million golden, 19th-century dollars to the state's economy and lifted it from the poverty the war had wrought.
But farmers were moving west and homesteading the land. They were building fences around their farms and across the cattle trails, setting up the plots of hundreds of Western stories and movies.
The open range was doomed. So was the longhorn, it seemed.
Ranchers no longer needed a cow that could walk miles to water, fight off coyotes and eat anything but rocks. They needed one that would stand quietly in a fenced pasture and get fat in a hurry. They imported the Hereford, the Angus and other breeds that man had created to be beef. The nature-created longhorn, like the buffalo, was headed toward oblivion.
"It was eaten almost to extinction," Miller says. "It was just slaughtered out."
In 1927, Congress allocated $3,000 and three game rangers to gather a herd and move it to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge near Cache, Okla. The men scoured South Texas and Mexico to find longhorns and came up with only 27 head.
The Forest Service, which has kept careful breeding records on the herd since it was started, now maintains about 300 pure longhorns and sells its excess calves to ranchers every fall. Most of today's longhorns are descendants of the Wichita Mountains herd.
During the Texas boom days of the 1970s and early '80s, longhorns became novelties for rich weekend ranchers, who would buy a few head and graze them near their country homes, to look at during morning coffee. Others were sold to parks as museum pieces, and as rodeo stock. As Southwestern decor became popular, longhorn heads, skulls and hides brought premium prices as decorative pieces.
Meanwhile, health-conscious Americans were seeking out foods with less fat and cholesterol than the beef they had been eating, unwittingly giving the longhorn a new importance in the cattle business.
"Longhorn beef has 33 percent less cholesterol than flounder," Miller says. "It has 30 percent less fat than the English breeds you get at the supermarket. It has 20 grams more protein than regular beef."
But not enough longhorns are left to make them the beef supply they were 100 years ago. "If you rounded up every Texas longhorn alive -- registered and unregistered -- they would last the beef industry only one day on the kill floor," Miller says.
So cattlemen now are breeding longhorn bulls and heifers with the European varieties, trying to breed the longhorn's newly desirable characteristics into the more common beef animals' offspring.
"If people keep trying to make the longhorn bigger to produce more beef and compete in cattle shows," Walter Schreiner says, then 20 years from now it may be hard again to find a pure longhorn."
Pub Date: 10/10/98