John and Carol Dvorak recognize the American heritage of the Longhorn cattle they raise by welcoming visitors to their farm southwest of Marion.
They value their colorful 60-cow herd of cattle as a bit of living American history so close to the Chisolm Trail and the cow towns Longhorns helped make famous.
But among the things the Dvoraks value most about their purebred Texas Longhorn cattle is the "good nights' sleeps" they get during calving season when other cattlemen are checking for cows and heifers in trouble giving birth to calves.
They never have "to pull" calves.
Longhorns are known for a desirable trait known as "calving ease." John said they are born at a moderate 60 to 65 pounds with a slender head and form that easily traverses the birth canal. In 13 years with Longhorns, the Dvoraks have only had to assist one cow in the case of a breech-birth.
It's something he helps promote not only as a producer but as long-time president of the "Best of the Trails Spring Show" done annually in Kingman under the auspices of the Missouri-Kansas International Texas Longhorn Association.
After birth, the Longhorns show the wild-type vigor of their heritage "getting up, and eating in 15 minutes where it takes a regular calf a couple of hours." That was an important trait when Longhorns had to survive predation.
You may have to watch out for some low-key Dvorak humor when touring. After seeing the cows with their massive spreads of horns, Carol might tell you about how many of the calves already have horns in the womb, and how you need to check to see that the horns are laid back in the right position for birth.
Turns out that's sort of a "jackelope story," similar to the mythical jack rabbit with pronghorn antelope horns glued on sold humorously in western tourist stops.
What turns out to be a little more true , but still unusual, are some of the Longhorn behaviors and characteristics that happen more than in other cattle. These are ingrained from their natural selection over hundreds of years as introduced wild animals in North America.
Carol said, "They have nurseries. You'll see a group of several calves with two or three cows watching over them. If there's a problem with the babies, or wolves, coyotes or dogs get after them, the nursery cows start up a holler, and all the mothers respond thundering in with their horns ready for the fight."
She showed a drawing from Texas done in 1946 of a Longhorn cow that has a newborn calf tossing an attacking wolf high in the air while other wolves back away.
John verified from personal experience that the picture is accurate. The Dvoraks had some problem with dogs in a leased pasture near Marion County Lake. One dog that went in with the cows was tossed high in the air just like the wolf in the picture, John said.
John said Longhorns are so disease resistant that they save their owners time and money on treatment. "If a veterinarian had to depend on Longhorns to make a living, he'd starve to death."
Carol said Longhorns "are a thinking breed. They're smart. If you open a gate with a little gap in it, a cow will use a horn to swing it open to go through."
At the same time the Dvoraks find the Longhorns gentle to work with. They give them all names, and walk in freely among them. Some animals in the group appear to relish being petted, or massaged at the horn base.
The Longhorns started out as crosses from wild European cattle and African cattle brought with invading Moors into Spain. The Spanish first introduced them to America right after Christopher Columbus' discovery in 1493.
Strayed and abandoned cattle of these proto-type cattle went into the creation of millions of Texas Longhorns on the southern prairie where their "hard hooves and lethal horns" equipped them for survivial. In breed literature, Longhorns' "survival of the fittest" history resulted in strong health, high fertility, good teeth, disease resistance, and body soundness.
They were unique for their abilities to walk long distances, live off the land, protect themselves, swim rivers, survive desert heat, and to survive winter snow. By 1865 at the close of the Civil War, with a population between three million and four million head in Texas, these traits made them the right thing at the right time for the cattle drives by southern cowboys into railhead towns near here, such as Abilene, Newton and Dodge City, for shipment to beef-hungry population centers in the east.
Carol said the railhead towns moved west following railroad development with the first real cowtown actually at Sedalia, Mo.
In 1900 the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated the U.S. cattle population at 60 million, most of which contained a base percentage of Longhorn blood. Longhorn cattle provided the native base for "breeding up" to purebred status for other breeds from imported European and Asian stock.
Longhorns nearly became extinct because of the crossbreeding and because their naturally lean meat didn't fit the need for profitable tallow for candles, soaps, lubricants and cooking.
Early producers saved the breed in part by getting the U.S. government herd established in 1927 at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge at Cache, Oklahoma. Many Longhorn lovers want to see more of the cattle in national preserves as an animal at least as much a part of American wildlife as the mustang horse.
Carol said Longhorns seem "built for movement. At one pasture we have south of Hillsboro, it's a mile across. If the Longhorns start moving, we can't catch up with them."
John said although he hasn't had much problems with it, the Longhorns also can jump with the ability of wild animals. He had one instance where cows began going in and out over a fence on a regular basis that was solved by putting a wire just six inches higher.
John was an experienced cattleman when he and Carol began with the Longhorns in 1991. He had worked in various duties for Jim Donahue of Marion County for 15 years including a decade with Brangus cattle. He showed his expertise in building cattle pens and equipment before leaving that job and a home 10 miles east of Marion for the current family location on five acres.
John was working at Hay and Forage in Hesston when a co-worker and friend, Jonathan Hauck, began telling him all about the health benefits of eating lean Longhorn meat and the healthful hardiness of the cattle. He ended up "buying two or three head" of Longhorns that "kept having babies."
Then he compounded the business growth by buying 32 cows when he intended to get "a couple more" at a dispersal sale at Dodge City. Suddenly there were "40-some" cows on the small acreage and an urgent need to go rent pasture.
This built into a business where the Dvoraks not only found themselves selling breeding stock and homegrown beef processed at Burdick, but also a majority of their calves sold as weanlings for rodeo stock because the beginning-to-grow horns that help hold a rope and agility make the calves favorite cowboy challenges.
The Dvorak children, Sherry and Derick of Salina, and Darrin of Springfield, Mo., stay involved by helping with such jobs as sorting and vaccinating Longhorns on their visits.
Carol early-on found herself intrigued by all the color patterns of the Longhorns, brindles, red roan, blue roan, creamy browns, and even once a purple roan she saw with the color coming from a mix of red and blue roan hair. Her favorite is a dark reddish color, "so pretty like a prairie fire, starting dark red at the bottom and then lightening up to brighter red at the top."
A herd favorite now is a black and white spotted cow named Violet that also is a good illustration of an added colorful attraction of Longhorns called "mealy mouth." Basically this is a break in color pattern ringing the nose with a solid color for the nose and mouth-end. In Violet, the color pattern breaks from a black on white spotted pattern to a white ring around the nose and a solid black nose.
Talking color brings up another facet of Longhorn calving habits. The Dvoraks usually have little trouble finding new-born normal breed crossbred calves. But going looking for newborn well-hidden Longhorn calves is "like going on an Easter egg hunt."
John and Carol also hope to capitalize on saving the skulls and horns of all cattle they have processed. John remembered one of the more impressive horn spreads he has seen at Fort Worth,Texas, on a steer with measurement of 110 inches from horn tip to horn tip not counting the curves in between. There are Longhorn tip to tip horn-length competitions.
Carol said bulls actually tend to have proportionately shorter horns. If the bulls are castrated, this changes. Steers develop the longest horns because they tend to put more of their dietary protein into horn development, she said.
Breeders now are favoring a horn shape with the horns going straight out with a slight turn up at the ends, essentially a "masculine type" of horn shape.
The Dvoraks favor a more "feminine type" called the corkscrew shape where the horns curve out gently upward with a half-twisting corkscrew shape up at the ends.
There are other shapes of horns that easily reach single-horn lengths of three feet long or more, many of the shapes less desireable like curving in in a circle. Sometimes horns damaged by things such as freezing can assume curves that can even cause damage by the point growing into the head.
Longhorn breeders can tell an animal's horns are still growing by color striations such as red marks in the horn.
One Longhorn producer sold a stuffed Longhorn head with horns for $16,000. John said the Dickinson Cattle Company located in Ohio markets horns, skulls and parts to the point of saying "all that's left is the moo." The company even sells Longhorn tails mounted on plaques, he said.
Carol cleaned and polished one skull and horns, and placed ribbons in the eye sockets, as a wedding gift for her sister, Jan, and her husband, Glen Slay. Coppersmith Ern Hett of Marion designed double rings for the horns. The wedding guests liked it, she said.
Longhorn breeders are attempting to select breeding animals for horn shape and size, but the Dvoraks feel most of the rules of genetics are against them being very successful with it.
This brings up another point of Dvorak Longhorn humor. They've enjoyed asking kids if they want to go "cow tipping," going out at night to push cattle over while they are sleeping. Of course, when the horn sticks in the ground, you must use great care in returning the cow to an upright position so you don't break a horn off.
John said he has found it takes less feed to produce lean, low-fat, low cholesterol Longhorn beef. He only feeds a slaughter animal grain for a couple of weeks prior to processing because that's all that is required for the limited fat marbling in the meat.
The cows get by on less pasture, and they eat a higher proportion of broadleaf plants than most bovine breeds will including such pests as ragweed, he said. "You can get just as profitable a calf off a 900-pound cow as you can off a 1,200-pound one, and she doesn't eat as much," he added.
"These are cattle that survived for years and years of their history in the wild with nobody to take care of them. They were free. They had to eat what was available, and they survived."
John said he has ample evidence of the Longhorn's reputation for breeding ability and life longevity in his herd history too. The cows often breed back every 10 months with 9 months gestation compared to annually for most breeds. He often has left bulls in fulltime, so cows breed back continually.
One cow that made it to 20 years old before she was culled from the herd sometimes had two calves within the same year often breeding back every nine months. John figured over her lifetime that cow produced three more calves for the same time span than a cow of any other breed would have produced, and that would have assumed the cow of the other breed could have lived so long.
One cow named Old Ugly, because of a horn that turned after freezing and a tail that had frozen, stayed in the herd to 21 years old.
Violet has been with the herd since 1993, and the current oldest cow, Tinkerbell, dates from either 1989 or 1990.
Even though Longhorns are sold for other purposes, meat production remains their primary function, John said. Selection over the years has made a Longhorn breed with a filled-out heavy hind quarters as contrasted with some earlier types that were light in the back end.
The Dvoraks are preparing for a September sale at Passaic, Mo., where a number of cross-breeding grade beef herd producers will come for cows to breed especially to Angus bulls, John said. These producers usually cut the horns off. John said the polled genetic trait of the Angus will produce Longhorn-Angus crossbreds that are 95 percent polled, and 90 percent black. They will grade high on carcass characteristics.
One 50-head group of such black crossbreds recently topped the market at a local sale barn, he said.
John said Longhorns typically dress out at 55 percent of live weight with 45 percent waste while other breeds dress out at 50 percent because of more fat.
Another popular Longhorn passtime has become training cattle to ride. John said a person riding a Longhorn bull can ride into the midst of a herd of cattle without causing a stir like they would with a horse. Enthusiasts ride Longhorns in parades and on the grand entrys for rodeos and shows.
The only drawback to this is that nobody's going to make a Longhorn gallop. John said the riding Longhorns usually "plug along."
The Dvoraks find them comfortable cattle to handle. Carol said she never feels qualms getting into a pen to work the cattle.
They tend to have fun raising them.