"Look at that. This could be the 1870s," says Dr. Zech Dameron III as he pulls his pickup behind the herd. Substitute a pair of horse ears for the Dodge's hood ornament and harden up the seats considerably, and we are a couple of cowhands moving up some long-ago trail--the Shawnee, the Chisholm or maybe the Goodnight-Loving--on the way to a railhead in Abilene.
Out ahead are three dozen Texas longhorn cattle, beige, dun and multicolored examples of a breed that is far more about Texas history, legend and nostalgia than it is about rib-eye steak and the modern beef business.
Of course, we are not on a cattle drive. We're on a section of Dameron's ranch in a surprisingly hilly corner of Montague County, 90 miles northwest of Dallas, where a part of his longhorn herd is seeking a greener part of the pasture. Above, red-tailed hawks are circling, diving and returning skyward, doomed field mice wiggling in their talons. As Dameron puts it, "It's a beautiful spring day, and life is abounding."
Some of the life in this tan-brown field has come into being with considerable help from the doctor's notions about animals and science. Three of the youngest longhorns loping along before Dameron's truck--content and healthy-looking cream-colored cows--are the products of a technology so new, it's a cutting-edge wonder in the 21st century, let alone the 19th, which was the longhorn's heyday.
The three young heifers are clones, genetic duplicates of Dameron's prized cow, Starlight, whose 6-and-a-half-foot span of horns makes her one of the breed's star specimens. Starlight's "clonal family" is the first set of longhorns to be produced as perfect copies of an adult animal. And they are copies, down to the shade of their light beige coats, which are splashed with small flecks of tan. But their most prized trait, those horns, aren't much to look at today, just carrot-size nubs that Dameron is hoping will grow in a couple of years to the same astounding proportions as Starlight's.
Since the three clones and a sister that Dameron has already sold were born last summer, the 59-year-old West Texas native has gained considerable attention in cattle-breeding circles, although not a word of news coverage in Dallas. "People don't say much of anything negative to me directly, but everybody has an opinion about it," he says of the direction he's moving the tradition-bound longhorn.
Taking an animal that has been preserved and cultivated almost exclusively for its historic value and then jetting it forward with science will get ranch people talking. As a doctor, a weekend rancher and an intensely curious sort who launches into his interests like a charging bull, Dameron began thinking about cloning a longhorn not long after he bought his first one in 1997.
That year, Scottish researchers announced that they had cloned a mammal, a Finn Dorset sheep named Dolly. It was heralded as the scientific breakthrough of the decade, something that rewrote the laws of biology.
"Cloning is unusual today, but it was real unusual in 1998," says Dameron of the year he took his first shot at cloning Starlight. His purpose, in line with the practicalities of animal husbandry, was to develop a wider base of female breeding stock with the trait most breeders value. "Breeding longhorns is about long horns," he says. "The cow is the limiting factor. You can take semen from a top bull and spread that all over the place, but a cow calves only once every nine months," he says. A bigger group of cows greatly increases the chances of producing a prize calf.
"I took a picture of my cow and faxed it to [a cloning researcher] and wrote, 'How would five of these look tied up to a fence?'" Dameron recalls. The reply was almost immediate.
It took two attempts, performed by Cyagra, the livestock division of Worcester, Massachusetts-based Advanced Cell Technology, to produce the four clones. The months-old calves were shipped to his ranch last October from the company's livestock breeding facility in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. He believes there was a problem with the cell line in the first batch, which produced no offspring.
"These clones are doing wonderfully," Dameron says, pointing out how the unnamed offspring are almost too big already to fit into an iron crib feeder set up for their near-exclusive use.
After the clones were born, Dameron took it upon himself to convince the dominant breed organizations, the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America and the International Texas Longhorn Association, to accept cloned cattle in their registries, which amounted to the longhorn world giving cloning its blessing. Acceptance of cloning has hardly been automatic across breeding organizations, with groups such as the Cat Fanciers' Association, the American Kennel Club and the Jockey Club, which oversees thoroughbred racing, barring clones even before they have become a reality in those species.
"Dr. Dameron gave his presentation, and people were receptive," says Tom Scott, a spokesman for the Fort Worth-based Texas longhorn breeders group. He says in the livestock world, where embryo transplants are common practice and artificial insemination has been a standard technique for decades, people are used to new breeding methods. By contrast, in the thoroughbred horse industry, which revolves around stud fees, all artificial methods are banned.
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.
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.
"You can have the best cow sitting under a tree in South Texas, but if you don't promote it, buy the ads [in the trade publications], it's just a cow sitting under a tree in South Texas," he says. "So we disagreed on advertising and such. After that, he really didn't go in for cloning."
The process that created the Starlight copies is called somatic cell cloning. It involves creating embryos with genes from a donor and eggs from other cattle. The DNA-carrying nuclei of the cells from the donor are transferred into unfertilized eggs that have had their nuclei removed. In a step that makes Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, seem like a visionary, Cyagra uses an electric charge to fuse the egg and somatic nuclei, which then begin to divide, creating new life. In Starlight's case, her genetic material came from a skin sample Dameron took from her right ear and airmailed to Cyagra's lab.
The living embryos were implanted a week after their creation in so-called recipient cows, which can be of any breed. The cloning herdsmen select the recipients based on their history of easy calving.
In all, five Starlight clones were carried to term at a cost to Dameron of about $35,000. One died at Cyagra's breeding facility. "It failed to thrive," says Ray Page, Cyagra's top scientist, adding that the company does not know if its death had anything to do with cloning. "There are things we don't know," he says. "Of the dozens of animals that have left here, none have died."
Over the past three years Cyagra has cloned some 80 head of cattle, including prized dairy cattle as well as beef breeds such as Angus and Hereford. Demonstrating last summer how the technique can preserve the bloodlines of a prized animal indefinitely, the company produced a clone of a prized Holstein bull that had died suddenly while being treated at its farm for an ulcer. Harvesting a skin sample the size of an eraser during a critical 48- to 72-hour window after the animal's death, Cyagra put the bull's genetic material through the cloning process.
The premature death of Dolly in February raised fresh doubt about the long-term viability of cloned animals, although most experts in the field say there is insufficient evidence to say if clones are more or less sturdy than other animals. Cloning defenders such as Page and Dameron point out that other naturally born sheep housed with 6-year-old Dolly died of the same progressive lung disease that struck her. At the same time, she was diagnosed as arthritic at a relatively early age. "Dolly's death was unfortunate," Page says. "It gave some fuel to people who are critical of the science."
In longhorn circles, it is not the viability of the cows or the science that charges up the critics. It's more the idea of tampering with this unique and mythic breed, a symbol of the West as we know it.
"About 3,500 cowboys drove longhorns up the trails for a 25-year period, and that's the thing that stuck in our imagination," says Tom B. Saunders IV, a fifth-generation Weatherford rancher who for three years held the post as historian and curator of a small herd that Fort Worth installed in its Stockyards tourist area.
The longhorn descended from Spanish cattle brought by explorers to the New World in the 1500s. Unmanaged herds of mustang animals formed in the South Texas brush country, and they evolved over a few hundred years into a lean, long-legged angular breed that Texas naturalist and folklorist J. Frank Dobie described thusly: "For all his heroic stature, the Texas longhorn stood with his body tucked up in the flanks, his high shoulder-top sometimes thin enough to split a hailstone...a rear view was likely to show cat hams, narrow hips and a ridgepole kind of backbone."
What could be a more perfect Western icon? A cow shaped like John Wayne and more durable than the Duke himself. Longhorns could survive and fatten on the sparse graze of South and West Texas and go long distances without water. This made them perfect for long-range herding, and 10 million head were raised across Texas and driven north to market between 1865 and 1890, says Saunders, whose great-great-uncle went up the trails nine times.
By the 1890s, the open range began to close behind a new invention--barbed wire--and railroad lines and expansive stockyards opened in Fort Worth and San Antonio. Ranchers began breeding meatier European breeds such as Herefords that fattened quicker in the feedlots. With no economic value, the longhorn nearly went extinct. "It was far more endangered than the buffalo," Saunders says. "At one time there were less than 100 true longhorns."
In 1927, Congress appropriated $3,000 to save the species, and federal agents combed Texas and Mexico to come up with 20 specimens for a conservation herd, which they located on what is now the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. Private efforts followed over the next several decades. Oilman Sid Richardson paid Dobie, whose 1941 book The Longhorns remains a classic on the breed's history, and rancher Graves Peeler to gather a herd, which he donated to the state. In all, seven so-called foundation herds were established.
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."
Rex Mosser, a well-to-do, self-made owner of a Houston steel company who has quickly become a big player in Texas longhorns, is more enthusiastic about Dameron's clones than most people.
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.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Mosser and his wife set a post-bust record last year when they paid $59,000 for Starlight's rival, an orange and brown female named Feisty Fanny.
Last fall, Mosser sent some cell samples to Cyagra, and now he has a small herd of Feisty Fanny clones on the way. "They're still in the oven, but the last time I talked with them, there were 11,'' Mosser says. The calving is expected to begin in a few weeks.
"My wife and my daughter aren't really for it. They say you should let things happen naturally," says Mosser, who got into longhorn breeding because he likes the way his multicolored herd looks in the field. "I say it's like having a car with air conditioning. Once you didn't, and now you do. It's progress."
Mosser says he didn't give a thought to cloning until he saw Dameron's new heifers. Now, he says, he's grabbed Dameron's shirttail and is hanging on for the ride. "Zech's way out there ahead of most people," Mosser says. "He's built a road, and I'm going down it. Just set your watch. Three years from now, Zech and I are going to have some outstanding cows."