Ranches & Lowline Cattle
By Heather Smith Thomas
From October 2010 issue of Western Cowman
Located in the mountains of northern California, Alturas Ranches has
a small herd (about 25 cows, plus some heifers) of purebred Lowline
Angus, about 200 purebred Angus cows bred to Lowline bulls to produce
half-blood Lowlines, and about 150 half-blood cows and heifers bred
back to half-blood bulls. The ranch is managed by Sid Howard and has
2 full-time cowboys—Dale McKee and Jeremy “Bear”
Swenson bought this ranch in 1998 and grew forage crops, more than
50,000 tons of hay per year. “We make a lot of hay that’s
good for beef cows, but not dairy quality. We’re a long way
from the market it costs about $40 a ton to ship. When the price
of gas went up, we were bringing other ranchers’ cattle in
to feed them,” he says. Grazing land came with the ranch,
but at first he leased it out to other ranchers. He didn’t
get any cattle of his own until 2003.
the ranch next door, with a good friend of mine. It came with cattle,
and he encouraged me to keep them and get more cows. I was afraid
to do this at first, because we’d finally figured out how
to do well with the alfalfa and wild rice crops. But we figured
that with 50,000 tons of hay we could easily winter 25,000 cows.”
He became interested
in raising smaller cattle in 2005, when he realized that the typical
steaks served at restaurants were too big to fit on the plate--larger
than most people can eat. “They have to cut the steaks too
thin, and I like a smaller, thicker steak,” says Swenson.
He figured the only way to accomplish this was with smaller cattle.
He started looking
at crossing Dexter cattle with Angus to create smaller animals.
Then his assistant Leslie Boyle discovered Lowlines. “Leslie
was raised in this area. Her father and I went to high school together.
Her husband Mike and his crew put up the hay on this ranch. Leslie
knows a lot more about cows than I do; she’s been calving
heifers, feeding cows, and making alfalfa hay since she was a child.
She understands cold winters and all the things we have to do here,”
a smaller cow, but I also wanted quality beef. I asked Leslie to
look for a smaller kind of cow. She searched on the internet and
discovered the Lowlines. Then we tried to locate some,” he
are no big herds in this part of the country; most are small backyard
herds,” says Boyle. “We went to Montana and got 5 bulls
to start our halfblood program. We picked up 2 to 4 heifers here
and there—in Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington—anywhere
in the West that we could find some. We started with about 18, counting
bulls and heifers,” she says. They were fairly expensive,
often costing $2000 to $5000 per heifer. Heifers are more expensive
than bulls, because they are still in such short supply.
Leslie found were exactly what I wanted. I have a small experimental
herd on one of my other ranches, breeding Lowlines to Dexters, trying
to breed the horns off the Dexters and breed more beef into them,
but I haven’t gotten very far; the Lowlines by themselves
are better beef animals,” says Swenson.
I was a kid and my dad had cattle in the 1940’s, Angus cows
weighed 800-900 pounds. After that, every cowman tried to have bigger
cattle, to brag about having bigger calves. To most people, bigger
is always better! My dad bought Simmentals and got some 700-pound
calves—when everyone else had 500-pound calves. But the pasture
that used to carry 200 cows would only carry about half that number
because those big cows ate so much,” says Swenson.
On his present
ranch he has BLM grazing land. “We’ve looked back in
the history and certain allotments were running 1000 head, and now
they are allotted only 500. There are other factors involved, but
a some of the reduced carrying capacity is due to cows being twice
as big as they used to be,” he says.
In his father’s
herd, calves were large at birth and cows had calving problems.
“We lost so many calves, and that was terrible. So I’ve
always wondered if big is actually better or not. I am glad Leslie
found the Lowlines,” he says.
These cows not
only have small calves and easy births, but are also very feed efficient.
“A study in North Dakota at the university showed this to
be true,” he says. This study compared several breeds and
found that in average pounds of retail product produced by x amount
of feed, the Lowline was far and away the winner. Fed the same amounts
of feed, Shorthorns produced 86.1 pounds of retail product, Wagyu
produced 83.1 pounds, Angus produced 110 pounds, and Lowlines produced
154.3 pounds; there was more meat and less waste on a Lowline carcass
for the same amount of feed.
“Everyone seems to have selected cattle for larger frames—without
paying enough attention to other qualities. Hereford cows used to
be 900 to 1000 pounds when Angus were 800 to 900 pounds. Now Herefords
are 1500 to 1600 pounds and Angus are 1400 pound cows,” says
They take longer to grow, and don’t mature as quickly as smaller
animals, and take a lot more feed before they are ready to butcher.
The Lowlines mature quicker, with a high quality carcass, and also
reach reproductive age sooner, and have better breedback. “There
are some farms in Australia and New Zealand raising Lowlines, and
down there, Lowlines are having calves at 15 months of age and do
just fine,” he says. The beef industry needs to move back
toward a smaller, more efficient animal.
goes to Argentina, Australia or New Zealand for winter, and finds
it interesting that Angus and Hereford breeders there try to keep
their cows at about 800-900 pounds. “They don’t want
big, inefficient cows. You drive down the road and look at the cows
and think they’re heifers, except they have calves on them!”
Big cows’ calves may wean at 50 percent or less of the cow’s
body weight, compared with a smaller cow’s calf that may be
60 percent or more of her own weight.
the name of the game, and Lowlines excel in this important quality.
As stated by Swenson’s 20-year-old granddaughter, Hannah Current
(who wrote a paper about Alturas Ranches), efficiency in their operation
is not merely a priority, but a standard. “These ranches continue
to demonstrate superior productivity in everything—from the
breed of cows they chose, to research conducted. Barry Swenson consistently
encourages and implements new ways of raising and feeding his cattle,
even when the experts don’t recommend it,” wrote Current.
“Swenson went to Australia several times during the Royal
Brisbane Show and observed that Lowline Angus cattle consistently
won both categories of the Standards Australian Eating Quality Award,”
wrote Current. This fact, and the research in North Dakota on feed
efficiency, led Swenson to acquire Lowline cattle.
as an experiment, and growing into a full-fledged operation, the
last several years of breeding Lowline Angus at Alturas Ranches
have been a great endeavor. The efficiency of Lowlines in converting
pounds of feed to pounds of retail product has enabled Alturas Ranches
to make great strides in achieving low-input costs for a great return,”
The ranch makes
some of their hay into pellets, which are easy to feed. “It
costs us $100 per ton for the pellets,” says Swenson. “We
put $80 hay into them and it costs us $20 per ton to make them.
There is a pellet mill here on the ranch in Alturas. With this feed,
we get a pound of gain for 30 cents per pound. Most feedlots have
a cost of 60 to 90 cents per pound. When feeding hay, people figure
8 or 9 pounds of hay per pound of gain. We had 6 pounds of hay per
pound of gain in one study we did,” says Swenson.
feedlot, on grain and concentrates, cattle can convert 5 pounds
of feed into a pound of gain, but grain and all the things they
put in their special mixes (soybeans, etc.) may cost $200 per ton,
versus forages at $100 per ton. There is a big difference between
feeding hay and feeding a hot mixture. We don’t have that
kind of feed here; all we grow is hay. It would be interesting to
see what Lowlines would do on feedlot concentrates, but if they
do so well at converting hay to gain, you really wouldn’t
need grain. On a cow-calf operation you don’t want to feed
grain at all,” he says.
“Another thing we did was a taste test. We fed some steers
70 percent alfalfa and 30 percent wheat hay in pellet form. Another
group was fed 70 percent oat hay and 30 percent alfalfa. It was
surprising to find that the beef that tasted best was from the steers
fed the oat/alfalfa mix. It didn’t have so much vitamin A
in it, with so much grassy taste,” he says.
For this test
they had 20 people try the two types of beef, without knowing which
was which. A variety of beef cuts were used, including T-bone steaks,
rib steaks, London broil and hamburger. “The only type of
beef that the high-alfalfa fed steers won in the taste test was
“Lowlines often win the taste test in the Royal Easter show
in Australia. Whether it’s because they’re smaller and
the meat is finer grained, I don’t know, but in Australia
and New Zealand they figure the Lowline is the most tasty,”
The ranch has
been selling grass-finished steers as natural beef, and they’ve
been very pleased with the half-blood Lowlines’ ability to
finish on grass without the “yellow” fat that people
don’t want. These cattle marble nicely and put on minimal
“The man who buys a lot of our beef sells some of our steaks
in the Santa Barbara area for up to $30 per pound. He has created
a gourmet niche market, and wants more of these cattle; we are not
making them fast enough!” says Swenson.
Some of their
half-blood steers have been 4-H and FFA projects. The first year
in this youth program, the Lowline half-bloods placed first in their
weight division and graded Prime when ultrasounded, competing very
well against the larger commercial steers they showed against. The
Low-line half-bloods finished at about half the expected feed cost
for traditional 4-H projects, illustrating the efficiency of Lowline
cattle. The half-blood steers weighed 1050 to 1250 at show time.
heifers are bringing a good price, as more ranchers are starting
herds. Heifers sell for $2 per pound--about twice as much as heifers
of other breeds. Swenson is finding it hard to expand his own herd
because his heifers are in such high demand from other ranchers.
There’s a strong trend among some cattlemen to get back to
more moderate size cattle, after several decades of getting them
too big. This is one way to do it, infusing some Lowline breeding
into a cow herd.
can be done with just one cross,” explains Leslie Boyle. The
quickest, easy way is to breed heifers to a Lowline bull. They calve
easier, and the resulting calves are more moderate framed. “Using
Lowline bulls, either fullblood or halfblood, on our commercial
heifers has virtually eliminated calving problems, and the heifers
breed back quicker, as there is less stress at calving. Another
advantage with Lowline bulls is that gestation length for their
calves is about 7 to 14 days shorter,” she says. This ensures
that calves are small at birth, and also gives their young mothers
more time to get ready for rebreeding. A higher percent of these
first-calf heifers will breed back on time and not be open or late
the next year.
Ease of calving
is a big plus, with the Lowline. “We recently had some guests
here that weren’t cattle people, and I was telling them how
hard the cowboys work, on a ranch, like during calving season when
the ground is frozen. Dale and Bear—our two cowboys—said
they used to have to work hard during calving season, but don’t
have to do that so much now, with the Lowlines. They don’t
have to stay up all night anymore,” says Swenson.
Origin of Lowline
Angus were known as an easy calving breed, but no longer have that
reputation because frame size has increased so much. The Lowline
is a move back toward what Angus were earlier. “This is exactly
what Lowlines are,” says Boyle. “They were started from
original Angus genetics.”
The Trangie Agricultural Research Centre in Australia kept 2 Angus
herds for many years. “They kept one herd basically the same
size they were when they were first imported from Scotland,”
says Swenson. The other herd was selected for larger, high-growth
center was created in 1929 to provide high quality Angus genetics
to the Australian cattle industry, with seedstock purchased from
Scotland, Canada, the U.S. and Australia. The research herd was
closed to outside genetics in 1964. As part of their performance
testing they kept track of weight gain, structural measurements,
visual assessments, and did selective breeding to achieve certain
The trial that
led to Lowline cattle was begun in 1974, to evaluate selection for
growth rate on herd profitability—to see whether large or
small cattle were more efficient converters of grass to meat. For
this experiment the Trangie herd was divided into 3 groups, based
on yearling growth rates. The high growth rate yearlings were called
High Lines, the low growth rate yearlings were called Low Lines,
and a randomly selected group was called Control Lines.
The trial focused
on detailed evaluations regarding feed intake, weight gain, reproductive
performance, milk production, carcass yield and structural correctness.
The Low Line herd consisted initially of 85 low growth rate (small-framed)
cows, mated to yearling bulls that were also selected for low growth
rate from birth to yearling age (low yearling weights), and this
herd remained closed to outside genetics. All replacement bulls
and heifers were selected from within that line, based on low growth
performance. The 3 lines of cattle grew apart during the selection
process; after 15 years the Lowlines were 30 percent smaller than
the Highline cattle.
did this many years, and then became tired of doing the project
because ranchers always wanted big cattle. They were about to get
rid of the small ones, and one smart Australian fellow decided they
should do something more with the Lowlines and not just abandon
the study,” says Swenson.
A group of interested
cattlemen persuaded the Department of Agriculture to sell the Lowlines
on the open market. In August 1992 they sold 9 bulls, 23 heifers
and 7 cows to 7 purchasers, and in October 1993 sold the rest in
a complete dispersal (20 bulls, 44 cows and 51 heifers). “They
started a Lowline Angus Association and are making great strides
with this breed in Australia,” says Swenson.
At birth, calves
weigh 45 to 53 pounds. They grow rapidly at first because the cows
give lots of milk, and double their birth weight in the first 6
weeks. At 8 months the heifers average 240 pounds and bulls 300
pounds. As yearlings, heifers weigh about 420 pounds and the bulls
510 pounds. Mature cows weigh about 700 to 750 pounds and bulls
weigh about 880 pounds.
“I’ve read that all Angus cattle in America hark back
to an original importation of 2 bulls from Scotland. Today, if you
want to increase heterosis within the breed, it makes sense to use
Lowline cattle, because they didn’t come from the same 2 bulls.
We’ve noticed some real vigor in our calves when Lowlines
are bred to our Angus herd. Our cattle range in very rough country,
and the halfblood Lowlines do very well,” he says.
If a producer
wants to stay within the Angus breed, using Lowlines gives the most
heterosis. “You can downsize from too-big cattle and get a
shot of heterosis at the same time,” explains Boyle.
Winter Temperature and Feed Efficiency
Alturas Ranches are located in the mountains of northern California—and
winters are cold. The cowboys have to break ice on water troughs
every morning. The cattle always eat more during cold weather, since
it takes more calories to keep warm (and the heat of digestion helps
warm the body). Swenson wondered if part of this increase in feed
requirement was due to drinking such cold water and wondered if
this affected feed efficiency.
every cattle magazine, every university, and every company that
sells water troughs that don’t freeze, and asked if there
are any studies to show if it makes any difference whether cattle
have warm water versus cold water, but there are no studies they
were aware of. Here at our ranch there’s ice every morning
and the cows come running to drink when the cowboys break the ice.
That water isn’t much over 32 degrees. A cow’s body
temperature is about 101 degrees. She has to warm up the 10 gallons
of water she drinks, and that takes energy/calories,” says
“I called Cal Poly to see if they had any data on this. I
paid a student to do a couple months of looking to see if he could
find any studies that had been done. Finally he and the professor
said there was no research that they could find, and why don’t
I just do a test myself.”
He had his cowboys
put 5 steers in a pen with temperate water, and 5 steers in a pen
where they had to break ice every day. “We fed them for 90
days (during January, February and March—our coldest time
of year). We found that our theory was right. Steers in the warm
water pen took 6 pounds of feed per pound of gain, and these in
the cold water pen took 7,” he says.
feeding them a mixture of 70 percent alfalfa and 30 percent wheat
hay, pelletized so we could measure it easily and have little waste.
We have a pellet mill, so that made it easy to create feed for this
experiment—with pellets made from the same forage (a controlled
consistency). Our trial proved that we saved 1/6 of our feed. The
warmer water can make a big difference if you have a lot of cattle,”
2000-3000 cattle here during winter. This was enough feed difference
that we decided to change all our water troughs and have them insulated.
We have relatively cheap electricity and the expense to pump the
water was much less than the cost of feed. We figured it out and
realized that with 3000 head we would save $45,000 worth of hay.
It only costs $18 per month to keep a one-horse-power pump running
continuously. We are fortunate because we have hot springs here,
and our well water comes out of the ground at 70 to 80 degrees.
So this winter we’ll have well water flow continuously through
the water troughs, and not worry about wasting water. We might have
to keep 3 pumps going, which would cost $60 per month, for 3 months.
That would cost about $200 during the coldest months to keep water
flowing through, but would save thousands of dollars worth of hay,”
he explains. The cattle would need only about 2/3 the hay they usually
eat during winter.
had visitors from Alaska and were talking about hot water versus
cold water, and how much feed it saves. They said that where they
live, where weather is even colder, it makes an unbelievable difference.
They had a bunch of horses, and when they gave them warm water,
the horses only ate half as much hay,” says Swenson.
water was about a mile away from the feed. The horses had access
to cold water where their feed was, but preferred to walk a mile
to get a drink of warm water, rather than use the cold water.”
“We want to do our feed efficiency test again, using 5 black
baldy heifers and 5 purebred Lowline heifers. We can measure to
the pound, with the pelleted forage. We’ll know the results
of this by the end of March next year. We eventually want to compare
the end result—amount of retail product. I think you get a
better comparison this way, than just measuring pounds of animal,
because the Lowline has shorter legs and less waste—a higher
percentage of body weight is meat. We’ll compare just pounds
to pounds in this current test, but even if we get 20 percent more
efficiency, that will be huge.”
points out that the chicken and fish industries have greatly increased
their production efficiency. “With chickens it used to take
about 4 pounds of grain to make a pound of chicken, and now it’s
down to about 2 pounds. With fish, it takes about 1 pound to make
a pound of fish, and pigs take about 3 pounds of feed per pound
of meat. With cattle, if you use concentrates it’s 5 or 6
pounds to make a pound of beef, or 10 pounds of hay,” he says.
The big advantage to cattle is that they can convert forage to meat,
and don’t need grain—like chickens or pigs do—and
can utilize marginal land that can’t grow crops. Lowlines
are the real heroes, however, because they are able to convert grass
to beef even more efficiently than most other breeds.