Clone Ranger

The old roundup may never be the same, thanks to Zech Dameronís herd of genetically duplicate longhorns

Dameron's move might not have been as significant as the rescue of the breed from extinction, which almost occurred in the 1920s. But it was a milestone in the colorful history of Texas' indigenous beast, a symbol so powerful that Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush both made certain to keep some around their ranches to demonstrate their Lone Star credentials.

But to mess with a Texas icon is to invite dissent, and Dameron's clones have their critics. "You'd expect that," Scott says. "It's the pioneers who take all the arrows."


Like many longhorn breeders, Dameron is a hobbyist, a weekend rancher who has nothing against turning a profit on his cattle and sometimes does, but he hardly expects to. The lean and slow-growing breed is rarely raised for meat, and only a few choice animals fetch five-figure prices at auction. Still, the breed is alluring.
Top: Two of the cloned offspring from Starlight, Dr. Zech Dameron III's champion longhorn cow. Middle: Starlight (licking her nose). Bottom: Dameron feeds one of the cloned offspring.
Mark Graham
Top: Two of the cloned offspring from Starlight, Dr. Zech Dameron III's champion longhorn cow. Middle: Starlight (licking her nose). Bottom: Dameron feeds one of the cloned offspring.
Top: Dameron inspects one of the longhorn bulls on his ranch near Forestburg, Texas. Middle and bottom: Dameron surveying and feeding the longhorn herd on his ranch.
Mark Graham
Top: Dameron inspects one of the longhorn bulls on his ranch near Forestburg, Texas. Middle and bottom: Dameron surveying and feeding the longhorn herd on his ranch.

Some of the state's wealthiest and best-known people--Ross Perot Jr., Fort Worth's Bass family, Houston attorney Walter Umphrey, radio personality Don Imus--own herds of the majestic, lyre-horned animals. When John Benda, owner of the Fuel City service station on Industrial Boulevard near downtown Dallas, wanted to make a Texas statement on his property, he bought a wooden windmill, some cactuses and seven longhorn steers, the only known herd in the city limits. (Downtown life is at times unsettling for the cattle, he concedes. "During last year's Fourth of July fireworks, I got a stampede.")

"For me," Dameron says, "raising a better cow is a game. I like the competition. I want to raise the nicest longhorn ever known." To gain an edge, he has drawn on everything from breeding theories developed by a 19th-century monk to cutting-edge science.

His cows are his toys, he says. He will rarely sell one, and he is clearly smitten with them. To the office of his private practice in North Dallas, Dameron wears a pair of black cowboy boots stitched with two white longhorn silhouettes, a tie painted with a longhorn set against the state flag and a pin in that familiar horns-aplenty shape adopted by the University of Texas as its official logo in 1958. You almost expect to see a poster reading, "I'd rather be digging post holes." His inner office is decorated with Texas ranch furniture, the kind of heavy carved wood piece you'd find in Doc Holliday's office.

"My family were rural people, sheep ranchers in West Texas...and I have a lot of that in me," he says. "I'm not big on the city." When his grandfather lost their place to the bank in the Depression and his father went to Texas A&M to become a soil conservation expert, the ranching link was broken, he says. He, too, became a college boy.

Today, Dameron practices occupational medicine, doing pre-employment physicals and treating injured workers, with his wife, Janine, acting as his nurse. Every weekend, though, they drive out to Forestburg, a tiny crossroads of peeling wood-framed buildings that appears to have changed little since Depression times. Under a high pressed-tin ceiling, the Forestburg General Store, the only store in town, sells everything from 50-pound sacks of feed to groceries and gifts. In the back, they grill a respectable burger and fries. You pay at the register up front under the honor system.

A few miles out of town, Dameron's property takes up a few hilltops and flows down to a small lake in what he accurately describes as North Texas' Hill Country.

The longhorns complete the picture.

The breed's characteristic traits--they are self-reliant, rarely need help giving birth and form into protective groups to ward off predators--make them a perfect breed for an owner who often needs to be elsewhere. "I have a man on the place, but with longhorns you don't have to be 10 minutes away all the time," he says.

Dameron bought the first piece of the ranch in 1974 as a place to grow pecans. Once the trees came in, he was harvesting 100,000 pounds a year. A stand of newly grafted trees shows how seriously he continues to pursue that venture. A little later, he began dabbling in oil and gas exploration, the remnants of which are three low-producing wells he has since sold. "That one there blew in like a gusher, and lasted all of a day. That's going from a real high to a real low," says Dameron, who involved himself in everything from the geology and drilling mechanics to putting together the investors.

Then it was longhorns.

"Another guy who ranches up here told me he'd fix up a breeding facility if I'd buy some cows, and I said OK. We started with about 30. About 15 of them were real nice. Within the first year, I bought Starlight [for $24,000], which back then was number two in the world."

No. 2 in terms of her horns, which top the list of valuable auction-house traits. They kept growing, and now, at age 10, she has been the top cow on record for the past five years. (Steers--castrated males--grow the longest horns. There are several alive with horns more than 8 feet wide.)

The partnership ended like an ill-fitting marriage, but its offspring, Dameron's longhorn herd, has multiplied to more than 100. People have different ideas about running a cattle business, Dameron says, and his were usually the spend-money-to-make-money variety.

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