'Bear' Shares Secrets of Raising Great Longhorns

5/10/2014 7:00 AM
By Shannon Sollinger Virginia Correspondent

CATLETT, Va. — Raymond “Bear” Davidson calls it the bug. First you get one or two Texas Longhorns. Then another. Next thing you know, there are 50 of them in the field.

He should know. He’s been the ranch manager at Ben and Ann Gravett’s G&G Texas Longhorns in Catlett, Va., since 2009, where he oversees day-to-day operations of the ranch, the cattle, the breeding and the marketing.

In March, the Texas Longhorn Marketing Alliance, based in Lampasas, Texas, named him Ranch Manager of the Year. With G&G under his watchful eye, Ben Gravett was named Breeder of the Year in 2010 and again in 2013.

Davidson is good with cattle, said Wes Chancey, CEO of the Texas Longhorn Marketing Alliance.

“He knows cattle, how to breed them, move them around, feed them. But a lot of people have those kinds of knowledge, but there aren’t a lot of people who combine that with the genuine good character he’s got. You hardly ever find anyone who wants to help everyone he finds. Bear’s good with cattle and even better with people,” Chancey said.

Davidson’s father, Bill, managed G&G in the ’90s and he would spend summers on the ranch. While working toward a degree in marketing at West Chester University in Pennsylvania — it took him six years, he said, but, “I’m not a doctor” — Bear Davidson worked at Rob Fenza’s nearby Northbrook Cattle Co. He landed an internship with the California-based College Works Painting and was well on his way to a career in corporate marketing when his dad started nagging him to go to work for the Gravetts in Virginia. Fenza seconded that.

He resisted for a while, Bear Davidson recalled, but finally went to Virginia for a talk with Ben Gravett.

The rest is history. He started in August 2009 and has led the changes in the marketing of Longhorn cattle for the entire industry.

The key to his success: Breed good cattle, sell the best and always take good care of your customers.

The ranch won the Millennium Futurity Breeder of the Year, Ben Gravett wrote, “without showing a single one of our own bred animals. We won the Breeder of the Year Award because our customers showed up with confidence in the cattle they picked from us.”

When his dad ran the ranch, Bear Davidson said, a one-page ad in an industry magazine once a month was the sum total of G&G advertising.

Today, anyone interested can go to the G&G website and take a tour of the operation “in your underwear in the middle of the night eating ice cream,” he said.

Davidson uses Hired Hand Website Software and keeps the website updated by the hour, if not by the minute. He posts videos of the cattle, their progeny and their parents on Facebook and YouTube.

In June 2010, Hired Hand featured G&G’s Sittin Bull as their Longhorn of the Month. <\n> “Hired Hand has over 5,000 bulls in our system and Sittin Bull receives the most hits of any of them,” Davidson said.

The best way to sell cattle is for the buyer to be with them in person. That can be a challenge when buyers are spread out from one end of the country to the other. The next best option, Davidson said, is to watch a video and see how the animals walk, see the horn set, see statistics on horn growth and see the dam.

And with the Hired Hand software he uses, he uploads new information — a new heifer, a monthly update on horn growth — from his phone while he’s out in the field feeding cubes to the cows and heifers.

One day in April, he sold newborn Steel Bonnet before she was 12 hours old.

“I took a picture of her, put it on Facebook and a guy called up in three seconds and bought her. The marketability of these animals is phenomenal,” he said.

A G&G purchase comes with free delivery anywhere in the U.S. and a guarantee of satisfaction, along with a payment installment plan, if it’s needed.

Gravett always insisted on keeping prices moderate. But “moderate” in the Longhorn business is in the eye of the beholder. In March at the Legacy X sale, G&G went to $65,000 for 5-year-old Wiregrass Magnolia — 85.5 inches, tip to tip. Tip to tip, the measurement of the horn length, is the key to Longhorn marketing.

She promises to be the “fastest growing cow to hit 90 inches, tip to tip,” Davidson said. And if her offspring — Longhorn cows can remain fertile until they are 20 years old — sell for more, she will have been a good investment.

Wiregrass Magnolia, like every other animal at G&G, with the exception of bulls that are owned in partnership and syndicated, is for sale. She’s already on the market for $120,000, and she just arrived two months ago.

“I tell people, if you buy a cow for $600 and get $1,000 in calves out of her, you’re making money. That’s the whole goal,” he said.

Breeders of what Davidson calls the “English breeds” strive for uniformity. In Longhorns, the key is diversity. It’s what each breeder or buyer likes, Davidson said. Some like more color and more size. Some like the whites, while others like straight horns. Some want a triple twist. His job is to keep them happy.

When he arrived at G&G, eight years after his dad left to get back to his roots in Oklahoma, there were no white cattle on the ranch. They never used AI or embryo transfers. Today, all the breeding on the farm is in the field, they use embryo transfers for some of the most promising cows and there are some white cows as well.

Tracking and predicting rate of horn growth is critical to marketing. The industry standard, Davidson said, is for a bull to be 30 inches, tip to tip, at 12 months. He measures them once a month, updates the statistics on the website and links that to data on an animal’s siblings and half siblings.

“It’s a lot like baseball. We count and measure everything,” he said.

But there are still the intangibles. Sittin Bull’s son, Iron Hail, at home now with Wes Chancey at C&W Ranch in Lampasas, Texas, very nearly became a steer.

“We had him in the chute to band him. At the last second I said, Ah, let’s just keep him.’ Then between 12 months and 18 months, he just blew up, started growing” his horn at over an inch a week. “At 18 months, he was 60 inches, the mark for 24 months. I sold him for $25,000. There’s only ever been two bulls in the industry to hit 70 inches by 24 months. He’s one of them.”

At 30 months, Iron Hail’s tip-to-tip measurement was just a smidgen under 77 inches, and he’s still growing.

The other key to Davidson’s marketing magic is “sell the best.” Every heifer on the farm is for sale from the moment she hits the ground. The ranch buys replacement cows and keeps using the same bulls. G&G’s syndicated Sittin Bull is nearing 10 years old, and Davidson will be looking for a replacement. He plans to keep some of Sittin Bull’s daughters in the herd so he can breed them back to a new bull.

He recalled asking the price of a cow he liked. The owner said he didn’t want to sell her until he saw how the first calf looked. If he didn’t like what she gave him, he’d sell her.

“I’m like, if it’s not good enough for you, I don’t want it. A lot of people want to keep their best and sell the culls. When I’m buying cattle, I stay away from people like that,” he said.

The Sittin Bull syndicate is a case in point. G&G and its partners sell rights to Sittin Bull semen and promise that none will ever be available on the open market. “Why?” asks the website ad for the syndication: “Because the value of being in the syndicate goes down. You become a partner because you want to be one of the few who have marketable calves for sale or to bring back into your own program.”

Fanciers also value the Longhorn’s history and hardiness, Davidson said. The first Longhorn came to North America — home to bison but no cattle — with Christopher Columbus, and over the years they spread across the Southwest and Mexico with the Spanish missions. As the missions faded, the cattle were left on their own and thrived. Only the tough survived. Cows that had bad feet and couldn’t get to water died. If they didn’t have horns to defend themselves from predators, they died. If they couldn’t handle diseases, they died.

“Darwin’s theory of evolution was working tremendously at that point,” he said.

But by 1910, the Longhorn, once numbering in the millions, was almost extinct. A few fanciers worked to save breeding stock and the first registry, the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association, was formed in Lawton, Okla., in 1964.

Chancey, in Texas, noted that his neighbor with Herefords pulls up to 40 percent of his calves. He’s never pulled one. Longhorn cows define calving ease — calves are born at 40 to 60 pounds and the Longhorn cows dilate wider than an Angus. Commercial Angus breeders have been known to put a Longhorn bull in with their first-time heifers — since a majority of the offspring are black and polled, they can go off to auction looking like an Angus.

“The best thing about the Longhorn,” Davidson said on the G&G website, “is what Mother Nature gave it: great milking ability, great mothers, great calves, disease resistant and intelligent ... A 100-inch cow that can’t raise a calf is really a disappointment and disrespectful to all the past and future cattlemen and women. We breed Longhorns.”

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