By Victoria G. Myers
Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
It only takes a minute of talking with W.R. Baker to get crystal clear on the qualities he values in a cow herd. It's not the sort of thing you'd hear from the average cattleman.
"I'm raising horns, not pounds," the Texan said. "We need a good horn base and an animal that is good for roping. That's what we're selling, and that's what we've been selling for 20 years."
Baker, based in Livingston, said he started off on the pound side of the beef business with Brangus and Braford cows. But he was a roper, and he decided to import some Mexican cattle -- a type, or class, commonly known as "corriente." It was a well-made match.
Corrientes are hearty, docile and don't eat as much grass as the average cow. Cows weigh, at most, 800 pounds. Their highest value is as ropers, or rodeo cattle. In a way, corrientes have two lives. Their first use, as ropers, usually brings in the bulk of their value. Their second use varies, ranging from replacement heifers, herd bulls or, at the lower end, feeders and sale-barn cattle.
While Baker said he's raising horns, he's not overlooking a critical part of what maximizes the value of Corrientes -- they must be good rodeo cattle. Good ropers are trained, not just flung out into an arena.
"It is very important that someone who knows how to train them works with these calves," Baker explained. "Ropers are broken in. You want them to run straight and go down fluid. You teach them to get up and go to the stripping chute, where the ropes come off. It's critical you train them, or you will wreck them pretty quick."
Baker's calves are weaned at 6 to 8 months of age. The roping phase of these calves' careers starts around 12 months of age for steers, 15 months of age for heifers.
Prices for these scrappy little cattle are at an all-time high. Baker said selling them as ropers will bring $650 a head now. That is a big improvement over the average price he's seen for the last 20 years, about $450 per head. If he leases roping cattle to an individual, they bring $35 per head per month, plus a charge for the number of times the animal will be used. There are penalties if the cattle aren't well cared for.
Most of Baker's cattle are either sold or used in his own roping events. He has an arena on-site and holds about 15 events a year. Participants bring their own horses and compete, roping in different divisions. Between Baker's roping events and those of another company in the area, these cattle are used in about 30 contests during the course of a year.
"If you take good care of these calves, you can use them two years. But for many, you'll just get one year," Baker said.
The producer holds back any young males he thinks will be good bulls. He said many cattlemen used to cross the border into Mexico to buy corriente bulls, but it's gotten harder thanks in part to bovine tuberculosis scares. Here in the U.S., the overall population of corrientes has decreased, creating the shortage and the higher prices. That has been good for cattlemen like Baker.
"The downturn in supply started about four years ago. There was an abundance of corrientes, they got cheap, and a lot of people put Angus or Charolais bulls on them. That, along with the drought, which drove some out of business, created a shortage of roping cattle."
Baker owns 1,000 acres and leases another 1,500 acres for his operation. He grows hay, normally putting up 500 to 600 round bales of mostly native grass hay each year. In 2011, the drought hit his place hard, cutting hay production down to 80 bales. The cows ate the place down. Baker slapped a tabletop and said, "This tabletop, this is what it looked like out here."
But rains set in during October, and volunteer rye took off. He called it a "miracle." His wife, Sherry, called it "a God thing." The cattle stayed fat, and by February, they had a sheen on them. Baker was able to hold his herd together.
AFTER THE RODEO
What happens to a corriente after the roping is done? Baker runs about 400 cows and keeps all of the heifers as replacements after they finish their roping careers. Steers are usually sold, and promising bulls come back to his herd. What is left can go to the feedlots now, because there is a shortage of feeders. But he said this won't always be the case.
Some producers who moved their corrientes to a crossbred herd have found the cattle an easy sell in today's market, Baker said. He considered that route himself but opted not to make the move. He felt that as the regular beef herd rebuilds, buyers will dock the crossbred corriente cattle.
"But I'll tell you, it is going to take a heck of an order buyer to tell the difference between some of those crossbreds. They look like everybody else's cattle."
SERIOUS SIDE OF ROPERS
Raising rodeo cattle may seem like a fun way to make a living, but it takes a lot of hard work to get it right.
Texas cattleman W.R. Baker treats his niche market cow herd like the full-time business it is. Four years ago, Baker was approached by Texas A&M AgriLife County Extension Agent Mark Currie to see if he would be interested in participating in the Texas Beef Partnership in Extension Program (PEP). Baker was struggling with what direction to go with his herd of corriente cows and was trying to keep it a viable full-time business for his family.
PEP is a program between ranchers and Extension specialists. Ranchers commit to working with the PEP team with a goal of improving management and boosting profitability.
Baker said one of the key things he learned from the PEP program was the importance of conception and weaning rates to the overall income of the ranch. Just like other types of cattle, there was a need to keep body condition up on the corrientes, to boost breedback.
"My conception rates are at 92%, and weaning weights are at 250 pounds," he said. Baker's herd is all-natural service with weaning at six to eight months of age.
Annual breeding soundness exams on the corriente bulls were part of PEP, and they caused him to make some changes.
"The first year we sold about four bulls; they classified as unsatisfactory breeders. Without those exams and the knowledge we gained, we would have had smaller calf crops," he said.
Baker already had a pretty good recordkeeping system in place, adding he prefers a No. 2 pencil and a Big Chief Tablet to a computer. But as he went through the PEP program, he found the questions being asked made him dig deeper and study the end results of what he was doing more closely.
"We meet twice a year and look at things like pounds of hay I feed, pounds of gain I have and numbers of calves I wean. It has helped me get more focused on specific areas."
PEP stresses the importance of an accurate accounting system to document and allocate all production expenses. Analysis is done annually with the goal of separating out expenses and making sure each component of the ranching enterprise adds to the overall profitability.
Beyond feed and gains, Baker said Texas A&M Extension economist Stan Bevers helped him with an overall financial plan for the ranch. That, he said, is one of the best things that has come from the PEP experience. It helped him chart a financial course for the future.
Baker said corrientes tend to be long-lived and remain fertile. Some of his cows are 14 to 15 years old, and bulls can go as long as seven years before he replaces them. Culling is a tough decision because the cattle breed back well, and the cull cows don't bring much.
Corrientes, he addedd, are easy to keep. He doesn't need to run a separate heifer bull, and calving is easy. Baker said he's had corrientes since 1993, and he's only had to pull one calf. One bull is used for about 25 cows. He avoids calving in the heat of the summer; otherwise, calving season tends to fall into spring and fall months.
MORE ABOUT THE CORRIENTE
The North American Corriente Association (NACA), based in Colorado, provides a registry for corriente cattle, as well as a breeders' directory and background information on the cattle.
Currently, there is a great deal of interest in corrientes and a shortage of the cattle. The NACA website lists corriente breeders in 39 states, as well as Australia, Canada and Mexico.
The highest value of these cattle is currently as ropers, although the NACA and others in the business are working to develop more of a market for the meat, which is low in fat.
Mature bulls generally weigh less than 1,000 pounds, cows 800 pounds. Cows are known to produce rich milk. Their heads are V-shaped, and the horns, at 12 months, are at least 6 inches in length with a 6-inch base circumference. As the animal ages, the horns develop a curve; and by 2 years of age, they can easily move through a roping chute.
The history of the corriente goes back to 1493, when they came to the new world with the Spanish. "Corriente" is a term that means "common cattle" or "cattle of the country."
Currently, NACA membership stands around 600. For more information, visit corriente.us, write to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 719-425-9151.
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