Dr. Gerald "Doc" Berenson is a man on a mission. Whether it's educating today's youth about heart health, eating right and getting their daily exercise, or raising quality Beefmaster cattle, Berenson rarely sits long enough to think about how busy he really is.
He's up before dawn, ready to head to the office as director of the Tulane Center for Cardiovascular Health, returning home to exercise, then eat dinner, only to head right back to his office afterwards to work late into the night. Berenson is focused, driven, tireless and above all humble in his successful years as a researcher and as a cattleman. He devotes as much energy and passion to his Windy Hills Beefmasters operation in Poplarville, Miss., as he does his lifelong work in heart health research and education.
Berenson has received plaques, ties, gavels, stethoscopes and even toilet seats in recognition of his tireless work in the medical arena. However, he says receiving the 2004 BBU Breeder of the Year Award is one of the highest honors ever given to him in his life.
"It was such a surprise to receive the breeder of the year award," Berenson said. "What a truly special honor. I couldn't believe they'd given it to me."
Berenson's journey in the cattle business began while completing a research fellowship at the University of Chicago. He saw an ad in LIFE magazine with a description of the Curtiss Candy Farm cattle sale in Cary, Ill., the corporation known for creating sweet treats like the Butterfinger and Baby Ruth candy bars. Berenson knew he had to leave the world of concrete behind and go check out the cattle.
"The farm had about five dairy and five beef breeds," Berenson remembers. "I went out and looked at some Shorthorns and I never saw cattle so pretty. I took my wife and mother in law and drove across Illinois to the sale. We bought a bull and four cows and shipped them south to my folks in Mississippi. I don't know why my parents didn't shoot me for doing that.
"We started raising Shorthorns and commercial cattle. The commercial crossbred cattle that came by breeding our Shorthorns to Brahmans always raised better calves than the purebred Shorthorns because they were better acclimated to the southern climate. But I wasn't completely satisfied with how they were performing."
In 1981, Swayze McCrain Jr., whose father trained the livestock judging team at Louisiana State University, came out and told Berenson that he should sell his Shorthorns and buy Brangus or Beefmaster cattle. They went to Twin Creek Ranch, owned by Fred Moran and his uncle, and bought 20 lots of Beefmasters, then added another 40 heifers from the Starbrand Ranch in Kaufman, Texas.
Unfortunately, only two of those females performed out of that group. The plus side, though, was that one of those dams started the Magnolia Belles line of females that Windy Hills is still known for.
"We couldn't really raise calves until we got Beefmasters," Berenson said. "The crossbreds always outdid the registered stock, but when we got Beefmasters, for the first time we raised better calves than we did with the crossbreds. The cows were raising calves heavier than the crossbred animals."
Once firmly established in the Beefmaster breed, Berenson enlisted the help of Joey Smith, and worked out a deal with Smith that if he would go to college, he could buy and sell Berenson's cattle. Smith has been running the daily operations at Windy Hills as ranch manager for the past 17 years.
"Joey has done a really good job for me. We talk almost every day about what's going on at the farm and about the cattle."
Breeding and Embryo Transfer
Windy Hills currently runs 200 registered Beefmasters and approximately 200 crossbred stocker calves. Performance, consistency and quality are the core traits of Windy Hills Beefmasters. Buyers return year after year, confident that the animals they purchase will boost the production of their own herd.
Embryo transfer (ET) is a major part of the Windy Hills breeding program. ET enables Berenson and Smith to maintain the quality, consistency and performance of the cattle they raise.
"When you sell 100 females or more off the place each year, there's no other way to do that and not drain your genetic pool without ET," Smith said.
"I told Joey when we first started that the secret to this thing is the guy who knows how to match up the breeding. That will make the difference between a regular cowman and an outstanding cowman," Berenson said.
"That's where Bruce Robbins, our herd consultant, works his magic, matching the right bulls with the right females. He and Joey work closely together to find the right combination. You can see the results with ET I just ask lots of questions.
"We've managed a couple of cows that seem to work with every bull. The problem is, you don't want the cows to carry the bulls or the bulls to carry the cows. You'd like them matched up well, and that's really a game. Bruce and Joey come in to make the best matches."
Robbins and Smith are really good at matching cattle for breed characteristics, Berenson emphasized.
"I believe if you know how to match your best cattle, it will give you the best cattle you can breed. The animals I pick aren't always in line with what Bruce and Joey think are the best matches though."
"We just call it 'Doc's cow' then," Smith jokes.
It's been a three way effort to reach a point where a level of consistency has been achieved with the cattle, Smith emphasized.
"I think with Bruce's insight, me fine tuning some things, the boys tending to the cattle and with Doc pushing us, we've got some consistency bred in these cattle now," Smith said. "We do have an advantage on these younger cattle that we can grab them if we need to use them in ET. Now we're just trying to pick five or 10 to put back in the herd as replacements.
"We flushed 23 cows back in January and have about 35 donors that are in different stages. Our game plan, especially on the younger cattle, is to flush them two or three times a year, breed them back, then let them calve naturally.
"We'll put embryos back in the recips, then rebreed them every 60 days. I've had good luck with using Eazi Breed TM CIDR® inserts back 30 to 45 days on some of the recips. Even with donor cows and firstcalf heifers, when they calve out I'm flushing them every 30 days. That's hard to do without the CIDRs."
Keeping replacement numbers up to meet the needs of their ET program isn't a challenge for Windy Hills, considering Smith's sale barn connections.
"Thanks to my dad and cousin that run the sale barn in Hattiesburg, Miss., we stay pretty able to find replacements. My ideal goal is to buy pairs at the sale barn and put them together and watch them raise a calf for 60 days and make sure the mommas have what it takes, like good udders, etc.
"We've kept up numbers so well, and I've got so many recips, that I've used cattle that have been here 10 years or more. You take the embryos and keep using them if they do a good job. There are a number of cattle out of a certain female that have left the ranch and went on to do a good job for people. I might not have been able to sell them otherwise without the ET program. They'd wind up being too old to market."
"If it weren't for Shane Bellows with TransOva Genetics staying in touch and working with us, our ET program wouldn't be as successful as it is," Berenson said. "We really appreciate his help."
The predominant bulls Windy Hills is flushing to include Magic's Pride, Xcite, Soulman and Jackpot. Other bulls used in the breeding program are Caesar, CJ's Desperado, Black Magic, Magic's Pride and Black Shadow.
The main donor base includes Desperado, Painted Tiger and Red Tiger daughters. Spring Tiger and Spring Fever, both Painted Tiger daughters, are used frequently, as is Miss Broadhooks (Painted Tiger X Miss Gladys), a product of that same line.
Berenson's future plans include raising more quality bulls to turn back into the breeding program.
"Everybody talks about the Beefmasters as a female breed," Berenson said. "I keep telling Joey that I'd like to produce bulls that would turn around and produce some cows that will have quality bulls. You know you're going to get females from these Beefmasters, now I'd like to raise some good bulls to put back into our program."
Animal performance is an essential component of the Windy Hills breeding program and philosophy. Berenson expects the animals they raise to match up with or excel cattle in other breeds. His philosophy is to raise cattle that produce for performance as well as looks.
"It takes a long time to really breed cows and donors to be consistent with name and so on," Berenson said. "I guess the performance comes at the very end when we wean, which is in June and in November. We weigh, grade and rank them through the computer, either natural or ET."
"We've fed a lot of cattle through the feedyard over the years," Smith said. "We have a set of commercial cattle that we're breeding to a son of Miss Broadhooks X Desperado. For those cattle to make Doc some money, they've got to perform in the feedyards. That's why we've pushed performance so much."
"We know that when these cattle get to the feedlot out in the Texas Panhandle or wherever they are, that they will really out gain most other breeds. They can easily gain 3.4 to 3.5 lbs. per day," Berenson said. "Once when we sent a load of just Beefmaster culled bulls, they gained well over 4 lbs. per day in only a 100 day period."
Berenson also collects performance data on many of the bulls he raises.
Since 1967, he has sent bulls through the Hinds Community College Bull Test Station in Raymond, Miss. The test provides performance data as well as ribeye and scrotal measurements, among others.
"It's really a good program," Berenson said. "Even with that data, I'm not sure which bull out of the group we're going to pick. When they come back, they're about 200 lbs. heavier than bulls the same age that we're raising because they've been on a heavy feeding program. Every now and then we pick one we like and breed him, such as Xcite a Tiger."
Most of the bulls sent to the test are included in Windy Hills production sales and are purchased by both purebred and commercial buyers.
"The sale barn folks love our cattle and our performance." Smith said, "We're now raising some black cattle because of demand from commercial buyers in the Southeast. These order buyers like to group these black hided calves together that all look alike. I told Bruce and Doc, though, that if we're going to do that, I didn't want to give up our quality and performance just to get black cattle. It's worked so far.
"I think we've reached a point where people recognize our breeding program and our cattle. We've gotten a positive reputation."
Windy Hills has been an active supporter of the Junior Beefmaster Breeders Association (JBBA) for many years, hosting numerous junior heifer shows at the farm.
"As an incentive to get these young folks to come to the show, we'd give them five straws of semen from several of our bulls," Berenson said. "We've also given away Beefmaster blankets and have even paid the entry fee for the winners. I think our breed has to pay attention to the junior Beefmaster members because that's the life of the organization. They're the ones that are going to grow up and take what they've learned with them."
In 2000, JBBA presented Windy Hills with one of its highest honors, the Helping Hand Award, in recognition of their years of gracious support for the junior organization.
Berenson drives out to Poplarville to the farm at least once a week to check on things even with his busy work schedule. As director of the Tulane Center for Cardiovascular Health, professor at the Tulane University School of Medicine and chief investigator of the Bogalusa Heart Study, he rarely stays in one place long ... that is unless there's a bit of vanilla ice cream involved.
Anyone who has ever met "Doc" knows that despite a schedule that would make a 20year old tired, he won't be slowing down anytime soon. There's much more to come, both in his career and in his desire to raise the best Beefmasters in the business.
(Reprinted with permission from the August 2005 Beefmaster Cowman.)