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Frequently Asked Questions about Texas Longhorn Cattle

© David M. Hillis, Double Helix Ranch
Professor of Integrative Biology
University of Texas at Austin

L Brilliant Mary (a Texas Longhorn cow) with a newborn calf


I have listed some of the questions that I'm frequently asked about Texas Longhorn cattle here, along with my responses. If your question about Texas Longhorn cattle isn't answered here, please send me an e-mail, and I'll either answer you myself or find someone who can.

You also might want to look on my Links page for links to other web sites about Texas Longhorns, as well to web pages for other Texas Longhorn ranches and cattle sites.

What is the origin of Texas Longhorns?

Unlike most breeds of cattle, no one set out to develop Texas Longhorn cattle as a breed. Instead, they evolved in North America from descendants of cattle brought into the Americas by the Spanish in the late 1400s and early 1500s (the first cattle were brought into Hispaniola in 1493). However, the cattle did not descend directly from Spanish stock. Rather, the first cattle to be imported by the early Spanish explorers were from the Canary Islands. These cattle, in turn, were imported from Portugal, and the closest relatives of Texas Longhorns among existing European breeds are Portuguese cattle breeds (such as the Alentejana and Mertolenga). These early imports of Iberian cattle from the Canary Islands soon became feral in northern Mexico (which included lands that became the Republic of Texas in 1836, and part of the United States in 1845). These wild herds underwent intense natural selection; the only cattle that could survive were highly disease resistant, could live on harsh range conditions (through droughts, floods, heat, and cold), and could defend themselves and their calves against predators.

In the early 1800s, wild longhorned cattle were found throughout much of Texas. During the California Gold Rush of the late 1840s and early 1850s, there was great demand for cattle in California, and cattle began to be driven from Texas by the tens of thousands to meet the demand. This practice was interrupted by the U.S. Civil War, as well as the end of the California gold rush. Texans who returned to Texas after the Civil War had few sources of income, but there were lots of wild cattle in Texas, and few cattle were left in the eastern United States. Texans began to round the cattle up and drive them up to the rail heads in Kansas, where they were shipped to the east coast cities to satisfy a growing demand for beef. Many famous cattle trails were established, such as the Chisholm Trail and the Goodnight-Loving Trail, and many millions of cattle (then called "Texas cattle") were driven up these trails for shipment east.

During the late 1800s, large ranches began to be established in Texas. Fences were built, cattle were captured and contained, and the days of free-ranging cattle came to an end. Although these ranches originally kept Texas Longhorns, most soon turned to importing "improved" European breeds of cattle. The European breeds produced much more fat than did Texas Longhorns, and tallow was the primary driving force behind cattle prices at the time. However, several ranchers kept herds of the original Texas cattle, either for nostalgia or because they appreciated the abilities and qualities of these cattle. By the 1920s, the longhorned cattle were rare enough that the United States government paid to assemble a herd of Texas cattle at the Wichita Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Oklahoma, to preserve them from extinction. About a half-dozen private herds were also maintained through (or started in) the first half of the 1900s, and most modern Texas Longhorns can be traced back to these seven "families"of longhorns (the Wichita Refuge, Butler, Marks, Peeler, Phillips, Wright, and Yates lines).

In 1964, the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America (TLBAA) was founded, and a registration process was established. Thus, Texas Longhorns became a registered breed. Today, Texas Longhorns are bred and valued for many different reasons. Their naturally lean meat is now considered an advantage, and the ability of Texas Longhorns to thrive on natural range conditions (without the use of antibiotics, added hormones, or the use of feedlots) makes them a favorite for the lean beef, range-fed beef, and organic beef markets. They are also widely raised for their beautiful colors and horns, and by people who appreciate the history and qualities of the breed. Texas Longhorn bulls are often used as service sires on other breeds of cattle, because the crosses produce fewer birthing difficulties and calves that grow quickly and have few health problems. At the Double Helix Ranch, we were attracted to Texas Longhorns because of their high genetic diversity and associated high fitness, in addition to their historical interest and their beauty. Traits that stand out in Texas Longhorns are their natural disease resistance, great longevity, high reproductive rate, ease in birthing, ability to thrive under harsh range conditions, and an ability to defend themselves against predators. We have never lost a single Texas Longhorn calf to disease or predation, and they thrive without extensive care or supplemental feeding.

For more detailed information on the history of Texas Longhorn cattle, I recommend T. J. Barragy's excellent book, Gathering Texas Gold, in addition to J. Frank Dobie's classic book, The Longhorns. See also Alan Hoyt's eleven-part series on the History of the Texas Longhorns (originally published in the Texas Longhorn Journal).


Are Texas Longhorns difficult to control, and can they be dangerous?

Most modern Texas Longhorns are gentle cattle and are among the easiest of breeds to handle and control. Their gentle disposition and striking looks make them favorites as riding steers, and their general health and adaptability make them ideal for weekend ranchers. Texas Longhorns that interact regularly with people are easy to handle; as with any breed, however, cattle that rarely see humans can grow wild and wary.

Of course, caution is required among Texas Longhorns because of the long horns. Although our cattle have never attacked or harmed a human on purpose, they can and do use their horns to manipulate objects and to scratch their bodies, so reasonable care should be exercised around the cattle to avoid accidental contact with the horns. Texas Longhorns will also defend their calves against dogs, so we are careful to keep our dogs at a safe distance from the herd.


What kind of fences do I need to keep Texas Longhorns?

Any fence that will hold other breeds of cattle is sufficient for Texas Longhorns. We prefer to use barbed wire fences, because they have proven to be the most dependable for us, and the maintenance costs are low. However, many breeders use simple one or two-strand electric fences with great success, and of course plank, pipe, and wire mesh fences are more than adequate. We avoid electric fences because they can be difficult to maintain over long distances and because they are subject to grounding problems (usually created by deer crossing) and loss from lightning strikes in our part of the country. However, if they can be closely monitored and maintained, electric fences are effective at controlling Texas Longhorns. If you have fences that are keeping other cattle or stock in or out of your property, then they should be adequate to contain most Texas Longhorns.

As with any breed of cattle, a few individual bulls will not respect fences, and will either jump over or go through them. We have had more trouble keeping our neighbors' bulls (of other breeds) out of our pastures, however, than we have had keeping our Texas Longhorn bulls in. We once had a bull that was a fence jumper, and so we culled him. We now select bulls in part for their disposition, and we rarely have any trouble with our bulls crossing our fences.


Do Texas Longhorns require much veterinary care?

No. Texas Longhorns have minimal health problems. You should follow the standard vaccination program for cattle in your part of the country; provide reasonably good pasture or hay, adequate minerals as needed for your area, and a source of clean drinking water; and follow a regular program of parasite control as recommended by your vet. If hay or pasture quality is poor, you may need to supplement their diet on a seasonal basis. If Longhorns are getting sufficient nutrition (including minerals), and have been vaccinated as recommended by your vet, health problems are quite rare.


Do Texas Longhorns have many birthing problems?

No. We have never had birthing problems with any Texas Longhorn calf, and birthing problems are virtually nonexistent in the breed. This is one reason why many commercial cattlemen use Texas Longhorn bulls as service sires with cows of many of the European breeds. The resultant calves are born without difficulty, and crossbred cattle typically gain weight very quickly.


What are the markets for Texas Longhorns?

1. Breeding stock (private treaty sales and dedicated auctions)
2. Bulls for service sires
3. Steers for riding and western nostalgia
4. Stock for rodeos (ropers)
5. Cattle for organic meat, lean beef, and range-fed beef sales (as appropriate for the individual breeding program)
6. Cattle for the mainstream beef market (easy to sell at local sales barns, but typically the lowest price)


How quickly do the horns of Texas Longhorns grow? How do they grow?

In an article published in Texas Longhorn Journal in December 1999, Malcolm Goodman suggested that Texas Longhorn bulls reach about 50% of their eventual tip-to-tip horn measurement at about one year of age (on average). By four years of age, they have reached approximately 95% of their maximum length. The horns of the average Texas Longhorn cow reach 50% of their eventual tip-to-tip measurement a little later, at about 15 months of age, and they reach 95% between five and six years of age. They continue to grow, but usually slow down considerably with age. These are just averages, of course, and there is a great deal of variation depending on the shape of the horns. The horns of steers continue to grow at a reasonable rate throughout life, because the low levels of testosterone in steers allow the growth plate of the inner bony core to remain unossified.

Horns grow from the base, not the tips, and "growth rings" can be seen near the base of the horns of older cows. Cows produce a new ring in association with each calf they produce, although these growth rings can get quite close together on older animals. Horns consist of a bony core, surrounded by flesh and blood, and then an outer layer of keratin. On many animals (especially animals with light-colored, rapidly growing horns) one can see the reddish color from the blood supply beneath the keratin layer, particularly near the growing base.


What are the widest horns of Texas Longhorn cows, bulls, and steers on record?

This is a hard question to answer, because many claims have been made over the years that are difficult to verify. In addition, there are at least two common ways to measure horns. The tip-to-tip measurement is the easiest to reproduce: it is simply the straight-line measure from one horn tip to the other. The "total horn" or poll measurement attempts to measure the horns along their curve, to get a measure of the total length of the horns. This measurement is much harder to replicate accurately, but it is a better reflection of the total horn length. The tip-to-tip measurement assigns longer values to straight, lateral horns than to upwardly curving horns of the same total length.

Given the difficulties of comparing measurements made by different people, the best answer I can give to this question is to point to the annual Horn Showcase competition conducted by the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America. This competition obviously does not include all the living Texas Longhorns, but owners of the longest-horned animals tend to be very proud of their cattle, and so the winners are at least among the longest-horned Texas Longhorns. Although there are some anecdotes of even longer-horned steers in the distant past, recent selection for very long horns means that the Texas Longhorns that are alive today are probably among the longest-horned animals that have ever been a part of the breed.

At the 2006 Horn Showcase:
1. The Texas Longhorn cow with the widest horns (tip-to-tip measurement) was Day's Feisty Fannie, at 82"

The Texas Longhorn cow with the widest horns (total horn measurement) was
Sunrise Hope, at 97 3/8"
The Texas Longhorn bull with the widest horns (tip-to-tip measurement) was Superbowl, at 76"
The Texas Longhorn bull with the widest horns (total horn measurement) was Wyoming Warpaint, at 96 1/4"
The Texas Longhorn steer with the widest horns (tip-to-tip measurement) was
Watson 101, at 101"
The Texas Longhorn steer with the widest horns (total horn measurement) was
Gilbralter at 126 1/2"

Click here to download the complete 2006 Horn Showcase results.

What are the branding requirements for registered Texas Longhorns?

Registered Texas Longhorns must be branded with a holding brand (the brand of the individual ranch or owner) as well as by a unique private herd number. Branding can be done with either fire brands or freeze brands. Brand designs should be registered with both the breed association and your state, county, or province of residence (according to local brand registration regulations). In Texas, cattle brands must be registered in each county where a ranch has operations. Registration is made at the County Courthouse (and renewed once a decade).


Where can Texas Longhorns be raised? Do they require a hot, dry climate?

Texas Longhorns are raised throughout North America, as well as in a few European countries and in Australia. They thrive in both hot and cold climates, and everything in between. There are highly successful Texas Longhorn breeders all over North America, in every place where cattle are raised. They thrive where other breeds have difficulty living, but they don't require a hot, dry climate. They also thrive in Canada, in the Pacific northwest, on the northern Plains, in the northeast, and in the southeastern states.


What do Texas Longhorns eat?

Like all cattle, Texas Longhorns eat mostly grass and forbes. However, Texas Longhorns graze (and browse) on a wider variety of plants than do most cattle. By utilizing a wider variety of plants, they do less damage to rangeland (since they don't just target a few favorite species), and they can thrive under a wider variety of conditions.


Can Texas Longhorns be kept safely with horses?

We keep our horses in a pasture with Texas Longhorns, as do many other breeders, and have not experienced any problems. Pasturing cattle and horses together is often recommended to maintain pasture quality and reduce parasite loads of both cattle and horses (since the internal parasites of cattle cannot survive in horses, and vice versa).

Return to Main Page for the Double Helix Ranch

Cows | Bulls | Heifers | Calves | Horn length | Coloration | Inbreeding | Ranch sites | Brand explanation | Links