By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The 250,000 registered longhorns in existence today are all descendants of those cattle, Saunders says.
"They've been saved for what they are, so they appeal to purists," he says. "By cloning these rare champion individuals, if you ask me, you're diluting what they really are."
Dameron sees it differently. Talking about the breed while hefting half a dozen 50-pound feed sacks out of his truck, he agrees that selective breeding, and now cloning, are changing the longhorn. But in his view, the animals are getting better.
"If you look at those old auction catalogs from the '50s and '60s, those cattle had horns like this," he says, spreading his hands about two feet apart. "They were giving awards for 50-inch cows and then 60. Now those are fairly common. Breeders like myself are trying to come up with a better cow."
In the auction ring, horn size has always been the most sought-after trait, followed by things such as size, conformation and hide coloring, Dameron says. "When they're talking about conformation, they mean the longhorn butt."
Mel Raley, the longhorn herdsman at the vaunted El Coyote Ranch in South Texas, says there has always been an emphasis in longhorns on the size of their headgear. "When they can't get 'em through the door, that's where the money is."
El Coyote, owned by Fort Worth billionaire Lee Bass, has been in the longhorn business since 1991, and with more than 150 females, it has one of the largest and most prized herds in the state.
"I really respect and appreciate the passion Zech had to clone the biggest cow. He did his homework," says Raley, whose ranch has sold Dameron several prize animals.
Still, he says, breeders are concerned that "if you get 20 guys with Zech's passion and they clone 40 cows, it's a scary thing. They'll dominate this industry completely in five years...Zech goes hard and fast. Guys like me try to make him slow down."
Then there are the hardcore traditionalists--a niche in the industry, actually--who say breeders of today's top longhorns are leading them down the wrong trail, and cloning is just getting them there faster. Modern longhorns bred for size, a wild variety of coat colors and straight-out horns have strayed from the traditional genetics, claims Don Davis, president of the Cattlemen's Texas Longhorn Registry, which has about 250 members, compared with the 5,000 in the two dominant breeders' groups.
"These 2,000-pound bulls you see in the breeding catalogs aren't longhorns. Longhorn bulls were much smaller," Davis says. His group does blood typing, as well as visual inspection, and has registered about 3,000 animals as pure longhorns. They are attempting to establish a DNA registry to more closely identify which animals are purebreds.
Davis says the traditional animals' horns were short and twisty, to protect their flanks from predators. "They didn't have 7 foot of horns running straight out," he says. "To me, tip-to-tip measurements have no meaning."
Actually, if J. Frank Dobie is to be believed, some of the 1800s longhorns did have prodigious horns that ran wide. In 1881, he reported in The Longhorns, a curio shop in San Antonio had on display a set of horns spreading 8 feet tip-to-tip. In the early 1900s, when the cattle were starting to become historic, a steer named Champion was written up with some regularity. Unreliable newspaper accounts, including one recording his appearance at the 1900 Democratic National Convention in Kansas City, put his horns at anywhere from 6 to 9 feet across.
Dobie, who died in 1965 and did more than anyone to preserve and mythologize the breed, seemed to be as interested in big horns as Dameron and the rest of today's longhorn men. In a lengthy passage in his book, he recalled spotting a huge-horned animal as a boy: "I can see him yet: between a pale red and brown in color, mighty-framed but narrow, the ponderous horns, which were reaching maturity by then, weighing his head low when he stood and wobbling it when he walked. They curved outward, not upward."
Just like Starlight's.
"I'm glad you point that out," Dameron says. "I respect some of these other points of view. But for me, those horns are a thing of beauty."
Last fall, he bought one at a Fort Worth auction for $19,500, a huge sum for a heifer whose horns are just beginning to grow. "I know I took a chance. There's no guarantees," says Mosser, who over the past three years has purchased some of the most prized specimens known and put a 90-head herd on Vicki's Menagerie, his ranch near Bryan/College Station. Vicki is his wife.
"I'm very impressed with what Zech's done," he says. He is regularly measuring horn growth of the clone, which he's named Starbright Leigh, and the little heifer's are growing more quickly than those of the dozens of other young cattle in his herd.
He is so impressed that he's pulled out his wallet and is doing Dameron one better--which at a certain level is what longhorn breeding seems to be about. Two years ago, Mosser bought a female with horns just a hair shy of Starlight's at an auction hosted by Red McCombs, the Minnesota Vikings owner who raises longhorns at a ranch west of Austin. McCombs, who has generated as much publicity for the longhorn as anyone, became a legend among breeders in the 1980s for his "boots-'n-black tie" auctions. Tax breaks in the early 1980s created a longhorn price bubble, with top animals regularly going for six-figure prices.