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FIRST CROSS BUILDS GULF COAST FACTORY

by: Clifford Mitchell

Matching genetics to the environment is a time-tested theory in beef management. Cattle with the genetic base to survive have been adapted to the different regions of the country to help make production goals more easily attained. Cattlemen explored many options before the most profitable genetic combinations for each region were discovered.

To better handle the heat and insects of the Gulf Coast Region, Brahman cattle were crossed with most breeds to try and identify the momma cows that best suited the area. It seems, with each combination, one cross stood out and the F1 Tiger Stripe garnered the title of “Queen of the Cow Country” along the Gulf Shores.

Robbie Hamilton, along with his wife Maurene, operate H&M Cattle Co. on Caney Creek near Wharton, Texas, realized the benefits this cross provided cattlemen on the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida.

“I was using Hereford bulls on commercial cows in the early 60s,” Hamilton says. “I saw what the F1s could do. I had to find a way to raise the bar with my F1s.”

As time went on Hamilton was looking for ways to increase profit potential. Due to limited numbers because of limited grass, increasing net return was a priority for the H & M operation. However, to accomplish his goal of producing top quality F1 females, the herd had to be upgraded.

“I purchased my first registered Hereford cows 25 years ago. I wanted to produce Golden Certified F1s,” Hamilton says. “I saw the potential in the F1 females and Golden Certified was the difference between a Chevy and a Cadillac.”

The Golden Certified designation can only be attained by using registered parents from both breeds. Hamilton looked for ways to add some predictability to the F1 heifers he would later market as replacements.

“Combining two registered parents adds predictability to the product,” Hamilton says. “I use top-end cattle from both breeds because I want to be known for producing top quality replacements.”

Even though there are good cattle that carry the polled trait, most die-hard Texas cowboys prefer the horned lines of any breed. Hamilton relies on Polled Hereford females and Brahman bulls from the well-known J.D. Hudgins Ranch in nearby Hungerford, Texas, to produce his brand of F1 female.

“The first few Hereford cows I bought ended up being polled cattle and I really liked them,” Hamilton says. “It was kind of an accident, but I didn't really want to fool with the horns and if I could find polled cows that would work that is what I wanted. The main thing I like about using Polled Hereford cows is they put a pretty head on the F1 cattle and 85% of my calves are polled.”

“I try to buy F1 tiger stripe heifers that are out of a Hereford cow and a Brahman bull, they work well in our program,” say Bill Crain, Manager, Rutherford Ranch, Pearsall, Texas. Rutherford Ranch has purchased 30 head of H & M heifers.

Finding foundation Brahman genetics was not hard. The nearby Hudgins Ranch is home to 1,300 producing Brahman cows within the different divisions. A close personal relationship with the family and years of being a good customer allow Hamilton the opportunity to purchase top bulls from this firm.

“I try to buy top-end cattle that combine the traits I am trying to produce. The secret to using Brahman bulls on Hereford cows is to have some size in the cow herd,” Hamilton says. “Once you find the Brahman bull that has the traits you want and a good disposition, stop looking and buy that bull. Disposition is the most heritable trait and is magnified during crossbreeding.”

Polled Hereford females that worked were a little harder to find. The first Polled females came from Farrington Polled Herefords in Abilene. From there it was on to McMinn Polled Hereford Ranch in Brenham until they sold out. Hamilton traveled to Journagan Ranch in Mtn. Grove, Missouri, and these females have worked really well. When DeShazer Cattle Co., Hearne, started selling females, this became a close source for females that were adapted to the Texas climate.

“I like to buy cattle like I sell them because you can tell what you are getting. I want to purchase first or second calf heifers that are open and ready to breed back to a Brahman bull,” Hamilton says. “Very few people use the polled cows as the factory. I wanted to be a little different. I am from the old school I like to buy cattle on their looks. People know my cattle have a certain look.”

“If I had to describe Robbie in one word it is quality. He doesn't buy anything but the good ones,” says Tim Lockhart, General Manager, DeShazer Cattle Co., Hearne, Texas. Hamilton has purchased females from DeShazer for the last four years.

The product created is a first cross. The tiger stripe female cannot be duplicated except with a Brahman and a Hereford parent. Hamilton believes this is one of the reasons these heifers are ideal replacements for his customers.

“The only way to create a true F1 is through a first cross, she cannot reproduce herself. These females have the most hybrid vigor. No two breeds compliment each other more than Hereford and Brahman. The F1 female gives you the best of both worlds,” Hamilton says. “She will outlast, get by with less and produce more than any other commercial cow. F1s fit nicely into a three breed rotation because you can go any direction.”

“The Polled Hereford females Robbie purchases are sound functional beef machines,” Lockhart says. “Good cattle are good, cattle regardless of what their job is.”

There are many reasons the F1 female has earned the reputation as “Queen of the Cow Country” along the Gulf Coast. Maybe one of the best reasons is overlooked due to the other advantages she brings to the table.

“She is ideal for the Gulf Coast because she is heat tolerant and insect resistant. The Brahman influence takes the hair off the Hereford cattle and slicks them up,” Hamilton says. “Another big advantage is these females can be crossed with a lot of different bulls and produce a marketable product. Most of the females I market go to a terminal crossbreeding system.”

“The cows have good size and they work real well crossing them with Charolais bulls,” Crain says. “They are the type of cattle I like.”

Hamilton started marketing his F1s at the Houston Stock Show in the late 80s with one pen of bred heifers. This format asks consignors to compete against each other for the title of overall champion. Heifers are evaluated by a panel of judges then ranked. Cattle are sold based somewhat on their performance during the evaluation portion of the event. Today, between 50 and 60 H & M females are marketed through special sales in Houston, San Antonio and the American Brahman Breeders Association annual replacement sale.

“When I first started marketing my F1s this way, there weren't as many sales to market cattle as there are today. The stock shows are where the top cattle are marketed,” Hamilton says. “Some of the sales are invitation only, and we always get invited back because we have quality cattle. At the sales we participate in, 75 percent of the good cattle come from the same ranches year after year. We have a friendly competition and rely on the champions to set the market.”

Through the years and many championship banners, H & M has built a reputation that speaks for itself. Today, 90 to 95 percent of the heifer sales are to repeat buyers. Last year H & M averaged $2,100 per head on the 60 females marketed.

“The good commercial cowmen aren't easily fooled. If you can get them to buy your cattle and they work, you've created repeat business,” Hamilton says. “When you have good ones you get noticed.”

“I've bought H & M females at the Houston and Sealy sales. Once you walk in and look at the cattle, you go looking for Robbie. He brings a good looking young cow to the sale,” Crain says. “The heifers are good, but more importantly, if Robbie tells you something that is the way it is.”

Just like in the seedstock business, building a favorable reputation does not happen overnight. Hamilton has been working to build the reputation since that first pen of heifers was unloaded in Houston all those years ago. Success at the sale often begins with the work done at home.

“I don't sell any heifers privately and I don't keep any replacements for my own herd. We sort our sale heifers into the pens they will be marketed in, a year ahead of time, to match type and kind,” Hamilton says. “My customers have learned the cattle haven't been picked over. I like selling my heifers in an auction environment, because I feel like I always get top dollar and reach true price discovery. I don't brand my heifers, because my buyers like to put their own brand on them. The kind of money my customers pay, they aren't trading cattle.”

The heifers H & M consigns to the sales are either bred heifers or have their first calf on the ground. Each group of heifers is managed where each individual can be marketed to its full potential.

“The reason I calve some of the heifers out is because my customers kept telling me they wanted pairs. I synchronize every female with a shot of Lutalyse because it controls costs and I only have to put them through the chute once. I have had good luck with Lutalyse because it sort of jump starts the heifers and gets them cycling. After that first shot I put them with an Angus bull because usually he'll get better conception rates than I could with AI,” Hamilton says. “Synchronization helps the calves on the pairs be more uniform and the guy that buys bred heifers won't have to check them for 90 days to get them calved out.”

Hamilton has fine-tuned the system of management to take the females from weaned calves to sale day. This process allows for the females to be developed in a manner for them to be successful when they go to the new owner.

“I like to hand feed my heifers, not bulk feed them. The feed serves two purposes, it helps gentle them down and pushes them a little so they'll calve between 24 and 30 months of age,” Hamilton says. “They have to be used to people, even strangers. The gentle cattle will sell themselves. There are a lot of small operations out there where the wife helps out, this makes disposition really important.”

The myth in a production system built around niche marketing F1 replacement females is the value of their steer mates is all but lost due to the Brahman influence. To help add value to his steers, H & M calves have been through Texas A & M's prestigious ranch-to-rail program, twice with good results. A new tool cattlemen have been able to take advantage of are the Brahman Influenced Marketing sales, which co-mingle pre-conditioned calves into load lots for buyers to appraise.

“We can't have more than 50 percent Brahman in these calves and market them in an auction setting. I never thought my calves got knocked that bad because they were quality,” Hamilton says. “The last few years we have been getting paid better for the steer calves, especially if you get them to the right place to sell. The VAC-45 program has really helped. I don't think there will ever be any premium in these cattle like there should be, but I think you will get discounted for not having pre-conditioned cattle in the near future.”

Through his roots in the commercial cow business and observing first-hand how crossbreeding works to benefit the cowherd, H & M realized there was a niche for a certain type of replacement female. Years of hard work have helped establish a market for these Wharton Queens.

“No matter what you do, you should try to be the best. I try to raise top cattle and stand behind them. To create repeat business, you have to make sure your customers are happy with what you're producing,” Hamilton says with a smile. “I believe in the F1 Braford female and the friendships I have made along the way.”

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