Catching up with Tom Elliott
By: Tami Arvik Blake
The last time this newsletter "caught up" with Tom Elliott it was the spring of 2005.
In that interview Elliott described his acquaintance with Jeff Ward. The men first knew each other as innovative cattle breeders, both of them unafraid to step outside of the popular, university-recommended box of thought in their shared quest for the ideal cow and the bulls most likely to produce that cow.
The lives of the two men became permanently entwined when, after Elliott made the difficult decision to sell his family's historic Grass Range, Montana ranch in the late 1990s, Jeff Ward and Sinclair Cattle Co. purchased the N-Bar Legacy cattle genetics. These bloodlines represented more than 20 years of Tom Elliott's blood, sweat, and best thinking thinking that resulted in groundbreaking cattle breeding and eventually the introduction of the most influential Angus bull of the 20th Century, N Bar Emulation EXT.
With the purchase of that life's work, Jeff Ward also inherited a friend and mentor in Tom Elliott. Today Elliott watches closely as Sinclair Cattle Co. continues on in the tradition of line-breeding those N-Bar genetics for predictability and profitability.
Of course, to say he sold his "life's work" might indicate that Tom Elliott used up the best he had to give in his years at the N-Bar. Not so. Instead, the man who studies complexity science, quantum physics, and energy healing who believes that continued learning is vital to any agricultural producer's success has channeled his world-renowned intelligence down new avenues in recent years. He is a sought-after advisor thanks to his ability to view himself, his work, and even agriculture as small parts of the inter-working whole that is life.
As the title of this interview indicates, you literally have to "catch up" with Elliott these days so he can fill you in on the details of his own busy and fulfilling life. Following is an interview with the man behind the brand:
Tami Blake: It's been a decade since you sold the N-Bar. Do you ever miss the ranch?
Tom Elliott: Oh yes, I miss the ranch often. I still have a little place near Livingston, Montana, so I can get out and build a little fence or chase the neighbor's cattle back into their pasture, but it isn't the same as the N-Bar.
I do miss the solitude of the ranch, but I don't miss the isolation.
Life is full of change it took me a while to get my feet back under me after the ranch sold, but I seldom look back. Mostly I miss the people and the landscape Jeff Ward has provided me ample opportunity to still be around the cattle.
I just learned recently that the N-Bar is soon going to be protected by a conservation easement. It's a special place and I'm delighted that the ranch and its heritage will be preserved in this manner.
TB: Describe your role as a program advisor for Sinclair Cattle Co. How significant has that continued involvement with the line of cattle you developed been for you?
TE: "Program Advisor" is a gracious term applied by Jeff and Lewis Hagen of Sinclair Cattle Co., who have invited me to work around some great cattle and offer my occasional sage advice on a wide-ranging (and sometimes bewildering) array of topics. Jeff and I both have a recessive mad scientist' streak in us, and it often comes out in our creative exploration of genetics. Mad man or genius? You decide.
Seriously, the opportunity for continued involvement with the N-Bar Legacy line of cattle has been deeply satisfying. In my official capacity, I have helped provide a conceptual framework for the breeding program and the possibility for historical continuity. Otherwise, all credit goes to the cattle and the inspired leadership of Jeff Ward and to his employees.
I've often said agriculture in all its forms needs to be multi-generational because the land and the animals reveal themselves very slowly. One of the really smart things Sinclair has done, in my opinion, is understand that population genetics requires time, careful observation, and realistic environmental conditions to succeed.
TB: Last we visited you said that Sinclair had improved on your thinking and taken the N-Bar genetics to a new level. Five years have passed. Are we at a new level again?
TE: I think the program has reached a new level of depth and maturity. When you study the breadth of line-bred genetics offered in the Sinclair herd sires, it's impossible to find another program like it in the world. Bulls like N Bar Emulation EXT, D806, Sinclair Net Present Value, 4X13, Rito Revolve OR5, Sinclair Picasso, and the list goes on each is a notable herd sire in his own right, but to find such a combination on a single operation is truly remarkable.
More important, each of these sires brings that rare combination of calving ease, reproductive efficiency, growth and modest mature size. It's little wonder Sinclair cattle are such trait leaders in all measures of efficiency.
TB: You've said that Jeff Ward is unique among breeders as a true innovator, rather than a replicator, in the purebred industry. Is there danger in innovation? Does Jeff avoid that danger as he develops new lines of cattle?
TE: Yes, Jeff Ward has the intense curiosity and steadfastness of temperament required of the true innovator. Yes, there is danger in genetic innovation it's a high-risk venture, and Jeff has not avoided that danger or its pitfalls. The real danger is in failing to observe and act upon the results with a critical, objective and ethical eye. To his immense credit, Jeff is not afraid to admit when something hasn't worked well and he is intensely ethical about misrepresenting anything to the public. If a project goes south on Jeff, he's the first to admit it, and those cattle never see the light of day.
It reminds me of the early days when I was first line-breeding Emulation 31. We had to cull very deeply to force the quality and horizontal consistency of the bloodline. It was painful, financially challenging, and embarrassing to admit among my peers at the time. But those are the bloodlines that have stood the test of time ultimately.
I think it's also a little like the river rafting I've been exploring. For the seasoned oarsman, 90% of the battle is in how you read the river and align yourself before the rapids. Once you are in the rapids you can make minor adjustments, but can seldom correct for major miscalculations. The consistency, integrity, and core conceptual framework of the Sinclair program keep them aligned to navigate the rapids successfully.
TB: How do your old customers from the N-Bar feel about Sinclair's work and bull offerings? Has Sinclair indeed remained true to the N-Bar legacy?
TE: While I am not in touch with too many of my old customers, the ones I have heard from have uniformly praised Sinclair's cattle and customer service. Of course, when we first sold the ranch, many customers tested bulls from our competitors. I'm pleased to see many of those customers coming back to the N-Bar Legacy cattle at Sinclair for the same reasons they used the original N-Bar breeding calving ease, maternal efficiency, reproductive traits, moderate mature size and a good balance of growth and carcass quality. These are timeless economic traits that drive the success of any commercial rancher.
TB: Discuss Jeff's work with Geordie Soutar and the native Aberdeen Angus cattle in Scotland. Was searching out these original genetics something you yourself had ever considered? Do you see the Scottish project as complimenting Sinclair's N-Bar bloodlines?
TE: Barb and I spent some wonderful time with the Soutar family in Scotland this September before hiking 80 miles through the spectacular Highlands. At Geordie's Dunlouise Angus Farm I had an opportunity to evaluate the native Scottish Angus cattle first-hand in their own environment. It was particularly interesting to see these impressive native cattle standing side-by-side with cattle sired by some popular contemporary North American sires. I know which cattle I would take home with me the natives were superior in all respects.
These native Scottish Angus are not a passing whim at Sinclair. I can't remember exactly when Jeff and I had our first conversation about the possibility of consolidating these native genetics, but it was many years ago. First, they are a significant outcross to all Angus genetics on this continent. They are very deep-bodied cattle with tremendous calf vigor, efficiency on forage, longevity, and superior weaning weights relative to cow size.
It's too early to say just how these cattle will contribute, but there is tremendous value alone in the preservation of the genetics for future generations. These cattle will bring full circle many of the traits that distinguished the breed in this country from the outset. They are complementary to Sinclair's N-Bar bloodlines, representing the same economic traits in a complete genetic outcross.
TB: You serve on the board of directors for the Padlock Ranch, and you've said before that "there's nothing that surprises a seedstock producer more than the realities of the commercial cattle business." Describe what you've observed about the beef industry in the last 5 years.
TE: At the Padlock, we've made amazing progress toward a more sustainable ranching operation with increased winter grazing, diversified income stream, well-trained and educated employees, and a strong, multi-generation family commitment. The ranch continues to benefit from our specialty Wagyu cattle, and our marketing relationship with Country Natural Beef and Whole Foods. We also generated a nice premium from cull cows this year because they were source verified. Five years ago, these were all fringe concepts today they are a reality for successful cattle ranchers.
TB: Last our readers knew, you were climbing mountains, sea kayaking, hiking deserts, and generally enjoying life after the N-Bar. You also were raising Angus and Australian Lowline cattle on a ranch near Montana's Snowy Mountains. Just what are you up to these days?
TE: I'm still enjoying life - working hard and playing hard. We've been backcountry skiing this winter and are planning a backpacking trip into the Escalante Wilderness soon. In my spare time last summer, I began learning to row a raft through raging whitewater. Interestingly, my reaction time is not as good as it used to be and I have to admit I got wet a few times for my efforts.
I still have commercial Angus in Montana's Snowy Mountains in a partnership deal with a couple of old friends. We sold the Lowlines in order to focus on the Angus and have increased the size of the herd considerably. And yes, we use Sinclair bulls, bought each year at the March bull sale.