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Aberdeen Angus in the USA
by Hugh Stringleman
Angus cattle enthusiasts have “out-commercialised” their Hereford brothers and convinced much of the big beef industry in the United States to go black, believes 6666 Ranch ambassador “Boots” O'Neal.
He told a group of visiting international journalists on a tour of West Texas that his historic ranch of 40,000ha was pure Hereford until the mid 1990s, when the manager ordered a breeding switch to Angus.
This was because the Angus beef branding programmes were so successful compared with the Hereford brands. For instance, Certified Angus Beef (CAB) in the US calls itself the biggest beef brand in the world, with some justification.
CAB was launched in 1978 and now boasts 15,000 licensees worldwide, selling 225,000 tonnes of certified beef annually.
To the observer from temperate countries, especially those familiar with the home of the Angus breed, Scotland, the sight of large numbers of black cattle under scorching sun in West Texas was surprising. For instance, 6666 Ranch carries 7000 Angus cows, all managed in the traditional western way. This means one cowboy with eight to 10 horses looks after up to 16,000ha, with its own house, herd and handling facilities. His job is to maintain the fences and the windmills for water supply to the cattle.
One of these ranch hands for more than 60 years, 'Boots' is a wonderful character in full western gear including chaps and spurs.
“I've seen a lot of changes in my time, and I've been against every one of them,” Boots joked.
As well as being ambassador and host for 6666 Ranch, Boots is deputy sheriff of King County, West Texas, which has an adult population of 200. Not a lot of crime requires his attention. King County is based around the town of Guthrie and the county is about 30 miles by 30 miles.
Boots said among the biggest changes in his time since 1949 have been horse floats and cattle trucks. Before them it could take days to walk out to yards for cattle mustering, and then days more to take the drafts to rail.
When cowboys were on the trail they slept on the ground in all weathers and were supplied from chuck wagons.
Now cowboys drove home after mustering and branding and slept in their own beds, he said scornfully.
However, he conceded that the standard of food is a lot better.
In the Four Sixes bunk house about 40 staff members are fed every lunchtime. When members of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists visited, Texas chef Tom Perini was called in to provide fajitas and dessert with bourbon cream sauce.
Perini, who has his own ranch restaurant at Buffalo Gap, south of Abilene in central Texas, is an ambassador for Texan cooking and has cooked for former President George W. Bush and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Steers are the only 6666 branded cattle sold on the open market, plus unbranded surplus heifers. Boots explained that the brand is strongly protected and that all branded females must remain within the ranch or be sold for slaughter.
Down the road at Memphis, Texas, not to be confused with Elvis Presley's home city in Tennessee, the Bradley 3 Ranch is a breeder of Angus bulls, turning out 150 to 200 each year, all sold by video auction.
Located on the picturesquely named Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River, the Bradley 3 Ranch produces renowned “natural beef” Angus sires which are sold throughout the United States and into South America and Australia.
This takes place on 4600ha of rangeland and semi-improved pastures, infested with rattlesnakes, mesquite brush and junipers, receiving only 500mm of rainfall annually.
James Henderson and Mary Lou Bradley-Henderson explained that the current ranch stocking rate is one cow to 13ha, which they hope to improve to 10ha with better pastures and rotational grazing.
When a group from the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists visited Bradley 3 Ranch in August, the daytime temperature was 40 degrees C and the black cattle weren't much interested in leaving the shade of the mesquite, except to take on water.
“Natural beef” in the US means no growth hormone implants and no antibiotics, but it doesn't mean grass-finished. Almost all slaughter stock go into feedlots for an average of 150 days to be finished on grain-based diets.
Meanwhile McDonalds restaurants in Australia and New Zealand have picked up a successful launch in the US of Angus branded burgers, for which the chain requires large numbers of certified Angus beef. McDonald's has launched two premium Angus burgers at about $2 above its existing range.
In New Zealand it is going to need 500,000kg annually of Angus-bred beef.
AngusPure brand manager (part owned by the NZ Agust Association)will be the auditor for the McDonald's programme, making physical checks on cattle in the yards, tracing the beef through into the box and even taking spot samples for DNA testing. To qualify, cattle have to be sired by registered Angus bulls over cows that are a minimum 50% Angus.
McDonald's NZ managing director, Mark Hawthorne, said despite the downturn, consumers wanted a premium dining experience, quality ingredients and ongoing value. He said the introduction of the permanent premium Angus burger range in NZ and elsewhere would be a considerable boost to Angus beef farming.