by: Belinda Hood Ary

In the cattle industry, producers are always looking for the best way to improve productivity in their herds. Every producer faces the challenges of putting the right breed and genetic package together that will work best for their environment. After years of trying different breeds and combinations and not being satisfied with the available options, Teddy Gentry decided to “build a better mousetrap,” so to speak.

Gentry, best known to most as one of the members of the group Alabama, started his cattle operation in 1980 when he purchased his grandfather's farm, where he was raised in Fort Payne, Ala., with the first royalty check he received from RCA Records. He renamed that piece of land Bent Tree Farms. Gentry immediately went to work building his cattle herd and rejuvenating the worn out soil from his grandfather's old cotton farm so that he could grow grass to feed the animals.

It didn't take long for him to realize that the hot, humid conditions of the South made cattle production more of a challenge and he began thinking about putting together a composite that was heat-tolerant for the environment, had a gentle disposition and would produce tender beef on grass. He was also more interested in putting the emphasis on maternal traits instead of the carcass traits. So in 1989 he began trying to put together a Bos Taurus composite that was tender and still adapted to the Southern heat and humidity.

Gentry started with a Hereford/Red Angus base, but since only a small percentage of those two breeds are slick haired he started looking for other breeds that would complement the maternal components of the Hereford and Red Angus breeds. He was introduced to the Barzona breed shortly thereafter when he purchased a set of Barzona/Hereford cross heifers. Gentry became impressed with their overall hardiness and easy keeping ability on high moisture grasses. This composite breed was developed in the harsh environment of Arizona by the Bard family and is known as “the hardy breed.” The final breed added was Senepol, which were developed on the island of St. Croix in the Virgin Islands by breeding native N'dama cattle to Red Poll bulls. Senepol are very slick-haired and according to the University of Florida research is one of the most heat-tolerant breeds they have tested.

“I wanted something that would allow me to maximize my profitability per acre on the grass that I've got. These cows work for me, I don't work for them,” he said at a recent meeting held at his farm.

Gentry started crossing Barzona/Herefords and Senepol/ Red Angus in 1989 and it was the mating of those two half-bloods that produced the composite he named South Poll. “Fertility and longevity account for the number one and two traits on a chart of economic importance for the commercial cattleman. So, in our cow/calf operation, those two traits are at the top of our list,” he added.

In his book he released just this year with Allen Williams, Ph.D, titled “Before You Have a Cow,” Gentry recalls the obstacles that the South Poll breeders faced in the first few years, “Along about 1990, our first F1 crosses were born. The Herefords were crossed with the Barzona, and the Red Angus were crossed with the Senepol. When we crossed these F1's, we produced maximum heterosis from the crossing of two unrelated breeds. Now our job was going to become much more difficult. With a high degree of heterosis, the cattle looked and performed great, but subsequent matings would not perform as well due to genetic variation. Therefore, we set out on a course of years of strict selection and culling in order to produce a composite breed that would have a high degree of homozygosity and would breed true. We wanted to produce highly predictable line-bred individuals. With each round of selection and culling, each generation became stronger because we were able to concentrate the genes of the cattle that best fit our criteria for the right shape and size. As we continue to move forward with the line breeding, I feel our cattle will get better each year as we continue this process.”

With interest growing in the breed, a group of breeders dedicated to promoting South Poll formed the South Poll Grass Cattle Association in 1999. Today that association has over 60 breeders across the United States, with members in states including Texas, Missouri and as far north as Minnesota. On the fourth Saturday of June each year the association hosts a field day and sale for interested cattle producers to learn more about the South Poll breed.

When Teddy Gentry first purchased his grandfather's farm 30 years ago, he had the dream of raising a few cows on his family farm. That dream became a mission for over 25 year to develop a gentle, consistent, heat tolerant, maternal breed for the efficient conversion of grass to tender beef. With South Poll cattle he is convinced he can say, “mission accomplished.”

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