by: Wes Ishmael
“It's over,” Uncas said.
The voice Hooter heard amid the static on his phone line at 4 a.m. was so unlike that of his old friend that it took him a couple of seconds to pinpoint the caller's identity.
“Uncas, is that you? What's…”
“I've checked and rechecked, but there's no mistake.”
“Uncas, slow down, now what's…”
“All that time,” Uncas rambled on. “Obviously I missed something but what?”
“No matter. It's done now. I wanted you to know.”
Hooter kept calling back as he pulled on his clothes. No answer.
He was more than concerned as he pinned the ears back on his pickup, heading north of the river to Uncas' place.
After all, Uncas Bingelemeyer's disposition was always preternaturally sunny and sanguine, if somewhat erratic. The lines connecting his logic were akin to the path of a hyper-electric pinball that never dropped out of play, but it always seemed to make sense to him.
Never, in all the years since he first got acquainted with Uncas on the 4-H judging team, had Hooter known him to be anything other than calm and pleasant, no matter the circumstances. Not once in all of the years had Hooter sensed any sort of melancholy or introspection. Uncas was one of the few folks Hooter had ever met who seemed to be truly at peace with their maker, their world and themselves.
Hooter guessed the shop-cum-laboratory was the best first place to look. He was right. But, it took him a while to spy Uncas beneath a pile of crumpled and torn green-bar computer paper. It looked as though boxes of reams of the stuff had exploded.
“Uncas! Uncas! You O.K.?” Hooter shouted.
Like a sedated turtle trying to ease its neck from within its shell, Uncas' eyes gradually focused on Hooter.
“Uncas, what's going on? You've had me plumb spooked.”
“This,” Uncas replied in a dejected tone, sweeping his hand across the peaks and valleys of paper. “This.”
Hooter ran to his pickup for his thermos. He poured a cup for Uncas. “Supposing you tell my what this is, and what exactly is over.”
“You called me, remember? You called to say it was over and thought I should know.”
“Oh that.” Uncas sipped on the coffee. “Well, it is.”
“The Bingelemeyer Composites, Hooter. All done. All over.”
Uncas swept his hand across the papers once again.
Hiding in plain sight
The Bingelemeyer Composite II was a questionable mixture of genetics that Uncas had been crafting and honing for most of the years since Hooter had known him.
The patriarch was a sire that Uncas called Sir Loin-A-Lot, the oddest melding of misaligned cattle parts Hooter had ever seen.
“He's an eighth Angus, an eighth Hereford, a sixteenth Simmental, a sixteenth Maine Anjou, a sixteenth Watusi, an eighth Nellore, and the other seven-sixteenths is the Bingelemeyer I composite. That's the secret. That's the information I can't tell anybody,” Uncas had told Hooter years ago. Hooter always suspected the secret ingredient included Peruvian Warthog.
Sir Loin-A-Lot was brindle colored with a white face and socks; one massive horn curved up, the other down; Uncas said they were heavy scars. The bull had to be at least a frame score 10, more than a decade after anyone wanted tall cattle. He hid his muscle well and travelled like a drunken sailor. Using a liberal scale, Hooter had guessed the bull's yearling scrotal circumference would stretch the tape at about 15 cm.
“I defy you to find a patch of prickly pear he can't get through with his unmentionables still intact,” Hooter remembered Uncas telling him.
“Can you imagine the heterocyst?” Uncas had confided in a hushed tone. “He can make the ground shake.”
Suffice it to say, the Bingelemeyer Composite was not one Hooter cared to sample; he knew of no one else besides Uncas who ever had. But, Hooter also embraced that old maxim about one man's trash being another's treasure. He appreciated anybody who could make their cattle work for them. By all accounts, Uncas' cattle did just that for him. Or, at least they had.
“Last time we talked, before this morning, you were so excited about them,” Hooter said. “You told me it was your best year yet and you owed it all to your composite.”
Uncas nodded, slurped more coffee. “That's part of the problem.”
Uncas motioned to the piles of paper again. “It's my selection index. I've maxed out. Making further progress requires genetics that I don't possess.”
Hooter stifled a smile and remembered how tickled he was to find his old buddy upright and coherent, at least coherent by Uncas standards. He fought hard to keep from suggesting that introducing genetics of most any kind from outside the composite would surely represent light years of progress.
“Well, if your index is right, maybe your goals are wrong,” Hooter tried.
Hooter finally saw a spark of interest.
“First off, what is your selection index or indexes? What are they relative to and what are using to calculate them?”
Hooter was no animal breeder, but he knew folks who were. And, he'd enjoyed more than a few late-night sessions picking their brains.
“You know me Uncas, statistics get to be deep water in a hurry,” Hooter explained. “But, I'm assuming you're using some sort of estimated breeding value for particular traits, weighted for economic value, relative to a given situation, like a maternal index being weighted more in that direction versus an index weighted toward keeping and feeding the calves.”
Uncas straightened up in his chair. “As you well know, I calculate EPDs for my herd, always have.”
Hooter did know that. At least he knew that Uncas calculated something he called EPDs, which were unlike those employed by the industry.
“What are the indexes and what are the breeding values used in their calculation?”
Uncas rubbed his chin. “I still don't know if I follow you. I have a breeding index. The better cattle score higher and the lesser cattle score less. Understand, of course, even the lower scoring ones are good cattle.”
“So, to score the best, they have to be above average in everything, or they have to excel in a few things.”
Hooter nodded again. “And by that measure, you're saying enough of them are good enough that you can't make enough others better enough to make a difference—what you called maxing out.”
“That's about the size of it.” Uncas sniffed and looked completely hopeless once again.
Hooter knew he and Uncas were talking about entirely different things, that he wasn't the one to impart the finer points of genetic evaluation tools and that Uncas would pay no attention to them anyway. Hooter also knew that wasn't the point.
“I don't know much about selection indexes, but it seems like if your cattle are at the maximum, then either you need to add something else to the index, or the game becomes getting rid of the variation so the numbers can be maintained.”
Uncas set down his empty cup. “I'm not sure I follow you.”
“I'm not sure I do either,” Hooter said. “If the cost of making incremental gain to the index or the pieces that make it up outweighs the returns, then you either have to find something else worth working on that responds to selection, or you have to shift your focus to maintaining at the current level. On the one hand, it seems to me that you're genetics have grown beyond your index. On the other hand, they've fulfilled it completely and accomplished exactly what you were after to start with.”
Uncas blinked a few times, got up and headed to the worn blackboard in the corner of his shop. He picked up a piece of chalk and started scribbling equations that made no earthly sense to Hooter.
“Yes, yes, yes. So, this is what you're saying,” Uncas declared with excitement, banging a forefinger on the chalkboard.
“This changes everything,” Uncas muttered as he scribbled more statistics. “Well, sort of…yes...in fact, this is exactly the same approach I took in developing Sir Loin-A-Lot…”
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