Ever since he was a boy, Clarence Dekens of Clinton wanted a herd of Texas Longhorns. He’d only seen them on movies because in Huron County, there weren’t many of this traditional western breed around.
Now, thanks to him, Don Flemington and other members of the Ontario Texas Longhorn Association, these “old west” cattle with horns that can stretch 10 feet across, are dotting the Ontario landscape.
Surprisingly calm for all the deadly implications of their fierce-looking horns, the herd accepts Clarence walking through them offering hay cubes and bread to the cows and heifers. They come up, accept the treats, a scratch on their heads and a rub along their gorgeous, long horns.
One does have to be conscious of the horns (one good head swipe and those horns could easily take you down) but the cattle give off a sense of calm enjoyment. Some don’t even get up. They just lie in the grass, peacefully chewing their cuds. When Clarence doesn’t have to worry about spreading manure and planting fields, he admits to leisurely moments watching the herd and enjoying the fulfillment of a dream that has been 25 years in the making.
Farming, and cattle in particular have always been in his blood. First dairy farmers in Listowel, then chicken farmers in Clinton, Clarence and his wife Ingrid branched into veal and beef cattle. The farming operation grew and all three of Clarence and Ingrid’s children live close by on farms.
When, a few years back, the neighbour put his hilly, forested farm up for sale Clarence knew it was the perfect location for the herd of Longhorns he’d long yearned for. He bought his first cow in 2015 and named the herd Harm-N-E Longhorns after his parents, Harm and Antje (Annie) Dekens who helped him and Ingrid launch into farming – something he hopes to do for his kids.
Since then, Clarence has jumped into the Longhorn scene all the way, becoming vice-president of the Ontario Texas Longhorn Association (OTLA) and a director on the Canadian Texas Longhorn Association (CTLA). He recently returned from Texas where he purchased his longest horned cow in partnership with a U.S. farmer. Her horns measure at 89 and 1/4 inches and she’ll stay in the States to be flushed for her genetic potential.
Texas Longhorn cattle with great genetics were selling for over $20,000 at a recent sale in Texas. Texas Longhorns have become a cattlemen’s prize in the U.S.
“There are a lot of wealthy people in the U.S. and for them, these cows are their art,” says Clarence.
I think Clarence feels the same though the words to express how he feels about the herd are slow coming. You have to watch him interacting with his cows to see how beautiful they are to him. “It’s always been my dream to have a herd of Longhorns,” he admits willingly, though he’s shy about talking himself. He wants to talk about his cows.
So we do and he’s quite animated talking about breed facts, conformation characteristics and the length of those horns! The farm bull, Hubbel’s Royal Crown, has the longest set of horns of any bull in Canada. When last measured, they surpassed 80 1/2 inches tip to tip. Royal Cown is only three so his horns will continue to grow. They will be longer now but it takes some skill measuring those horns...it will get done at some point. His lineage can be traced back generations and Royal Crown’s sire has the longest set of horns in the U.S.
Royal Crown has some growing to do to catch the length of Clarence’s longest horn cow at his Clinton farm – hers measure 81 and 1/2 inches.
The horns are what attract everyone’s attention and Clarence is excited about them too. However, his primary goal is conformation.
“I want big-framed cows with great balance and good feet and legs,” says Clarence. “I want them to catch my eye the first time I look at them.”
He’s building up his herd cow by cow and this year marks his second crop of calves. One heifer calf from last year is looking particularly good and he’s had offers. But she’s staying. She’s just the kind of animal he wants to build his herd on.
Taking a walk through the pasture with Clarence, it’s easy to see the appeal of these cows. Except for two cows in the back protecting their calves, the cows happily amble up. They come in all sorts of colours as Texas Longhorns do not have a required colour pattern. They can range from white, to red, to black with such interesting colourations as grullas, brindles, duns, light reds or oranges, and yellows. Dark red and white colour mixes are the most dominant.
Characteristics of Texas Longhorns are their drought-stress tolerance. Descendants of cattle brought to North America by Christopher Columbus, Longhorns thrive on poor vegetation on the open range. However, newer breeds gain weight faster and Texas Longhorns went on a steep decline, facing near extinction in the early 1900s.
A few Longhorn enthusiasts decided to revitalize the breed and touted its innate gentle disposition, intelligence and healthy, lean meat.
This is what Don Flemington of Holstein in Grey County raves about as he builds up his herd of Texas Longhorns, focusing more on the meat which is known for its exceptional leanness.
“When I was in Texas (to show Clydesdales with his partner, Andrea Thompson) I learned the meat they produce is very healthy because it is low in fat, low on cholesterol and high in zinc and magnesium,” explains Don. “And I thought wouldn’t it be cool to have Longhorns in our area.”
Promotional material for Texas Longhorns states that red meat in general is a treasure trove of nutrients. Specifically, Longhorn beef has less cholesterol and calories than chicken. With less fat content, the meat cooks very quickly and chefs have to be careful not to overcook it.
Excited about the healthy meat aspect, it wasn’t long before Don found a herd of Texas Longhorns for sale near Kincardine and bought it. The herd was bred for a focus on meat rather than showy genetics so the cow’s horns average 50 to 70 inches at best.
Then Don went to Oklahoma last summer and that’s when “I got the fever for genetics.”
In the U.S., the sign of a good animal is long horns. “That is where the value is. Their animals are pushing 100 to 110 inch horns and they breed for bigger and better animals.”
Skulls of Longhorns can fetch up to $1,000 according to Don.
Don says he needs to sell Longhorn beef to make ends meet but he’s hoping to improve his genetics as well.
“I would like to have something that creates a wow factor when people come to visit,” says Don. “Whether people come to buy genetics or meat, I’d like then to see what cool animals these are. As we develop the breed, Andrea and I (and son Tristan) want to have super genetics for other breeders and be a place where new breeders can come ask questions.”
He says whenever he goes to the U.S., the Texas Longhorn breeders have the best hospitality he’s ever seen.
“They are the most down-to-earth people who will open their doors, ask you to stay for a meal and stay for the night. They want to help us produce the best herd we can.”
Genetics may be the future for Don but right now, meat is his focus. Longhorn beef sells for $8 to $8.50 per pound from his farmgate.
People will pay more for the leanness.
“Longhorn hamburger is 94 per cent lean and only six per cent fat. So when you cook it up, you’ll end up with more meat because there is very little water or fat.”
“We supply a restaurant and he makes meatloaf out of it. We told him he would have to adjust his recipe because he would not lose what he was used to losing,” says Don
Like Clarence’s herd, Don’s cows are calm and friendly. “It’s all about who handles them,” he says. “The more you handle the cows, the quieter they get.”
Both Clarence and Don raise the herds outside. All they need is protection from the wind which can be provided by trees or an open-walled shelter. With those massive horns, these aren’t indoor animals.
During the winter, Clarence keeps his herd in a three-acre yard and feeds them hay.
“All you hear is the clacking of all those horns knocking each other while they eat,” he says.
In the summer, the cattle naturally forage and require little grain. They are relatively disease-free and excellent mothers. Dams will hide their calves in the grass and a farmer is hard-pressed to find the calf because it’s hidden so well.
In all, there are just 20 Texas Longhorn breeders registered with the OTLA but Don suspects there might be over 100 when including farmers who raise Longhorns for the rodeo circuit.
“We want to try and bring all the farmers and breeders and producers together to create unity so that we can rely on each other,” says Don, who is president of the OTLA. He and Clarence also hope to establish a Texas Longhorns show where breeders can show off their animals and promote the breed in the province. ◊