Saving the Longhorns

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Dobie’s book also contains a pertinent observation by Charles Goodnight, famed pioneer cattleman of the Texas Panhandle, sometimes referred to as the Burbank of the Plains because of his unusual breeding experiments with both cattle and buffalo. In 1927, while Barnes and Hatton were rounding up the handful of longhorns destined for the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma, Goodnight wrote Dobie that “climatic conditions will prevent these cattle from producing horns of the old type. The horns will become shorter and thicker, the bodies of the cattle more compact, and no power on earth will defeat nature.”

When he was writing The Longhorns in 1940, Dobie checked at the Wichita Refuge and included this report in his book:

The herd now numbers over a hundred and sixty head. Steers eight and ten years old weigh from fifteen hundred to two thousand pounds each—magnificent beeves. Some have interesting heads; no spread, however, much exceeding four feet. It cannot be asserted that a spread of six or seven feet—always exceptional—will not some day show up, but so far the Goodnight prophecy has proven fairly accurate.

Since more than thirty years have passed since the above comment first appeared in print, a current check seemed to be in order. Julian A. Howard, manager of the Wichita Refuge for a number of years before his recent retirement from the federal service, supplied the rather surprising updated report given below:

Consider that when the Wichita herd was collected, nearly half a century had elapsed since the peak of the Longhorn period. Even though a few ranchers in Texas had retained Longhorn stock, obviously, in 1927, the Longhorn already was a curiosity with little or no market value. Thus despite the long search and intensive screening to gather the Wichita animals, the herd could not be expected to contain specimens equal to those common fifty years earlier.

During the early days of the Wichita herd intensive culling took place to remove those that did not measure up to the specifications of an old time Longhorn.

In the years since 1927 the constant culling and the matching of cows and bulls as best one can to produce animals closer to the earlier specifications has definitely produced a current herd looking more like the legendary Longhorn than the original Wichita collection. Horn growth is but one of the characteristics, and as Dobie said, six or seven foot horns were always exceptional. On the other hand, Dobie’s 1940 observation, “no spread, however, much exceeding four feet,” is no longer true.

Although horns of steers at the refuge are not measured annually, as opportunities present themselves measurements are recorded. Five-foot-plus spans are quite common for steers ten years and older. Mounted in the office is the head of an eleven-year-old animal killed in an accident. The “pole” measurement (in a straight line from tip to tip) is five feet two inches, while the “along the curves” measurement is nine feet three inches.

So the horn spread of the Wichita longhorns has been enhanced by selective breeding and good range conditions. The great beasts are regaining their old-time proportions, and it appears that Charles Goodnight’s 1927 prediction may well have been premature.