From Scotland's County of Angus to cattle ranges of Wyoming

To the roots of the Angus breed


It's the American way. For decades now, the United States cattle industry has been working on "improving" cattle. We've tried a bit of everything - shorter, fatter, bigger, leaner, flashier and everything in between. We've accomplished many changes through crossbreeding programs. We've crossed this with that, that with this, and then with the other.

The concept is not a bad one. As producers of high quality beef, we want to meet the desire of the consumer and we're willing to make changes to do so. But along the way, it's become a real struggle to balance the demands of the feeder and the packer - growth and carcass traits, with the needs of the rancher - maternal traits and doability. Can one cow posses all those traits? Have we lost track of where we event started? And if so, how do we go back?

Sinclair Cattle Company believes they have found the answers to these questions in the line-bred Rito and Emulation bloodlines that represent the core of the Sinclair breeding program today.

In search of alternative genetics that would complement Sinclair's program, representatives of the company traveled to Scotland in 1006 to analyze the native Angus genetics preserved by Geordie Soutar of Kinston Farm, Angus, Scotland.

These original Angus genetics were almost extinct when Geordie tackled the task of preserving them nearly 15 years ago. Today, Sinclair and Geordie continue to work toward integrating the native Scottish bloodlines into Sinclair's breeding program half a world away at the base of Wyoming's Heart Mountain.

In the interview below, Geordie looks at this groundbreaking step for the cattle industry, a step that simply takes the Angus breed back to its start.

Tami Blake: Geordie, your roots in the cattle industry run deep enough that, in the early 1990s, you recognized Scotland's native Aberdeen Angus cattle were nearly extinct. Tell readers a bit about that realization.

Geordie Soutar: Well, I should say that I started to train as an auctioneer with the local livestock company as a boy. After a short stint in Australia, I returned to my home in the county of Angus in Scotland, which is basically where Angus cattle originated 150 years ago. After I married, we bought the farm, and I raised commercial cattle for a time before I decided to go back into the purebred Angus business. That's when I found that Angus cattle in Scotland weren't anything like the cattle from my youth. They had been influenced by bloodlines imported from North America since the 1980s.

Of course the Angus genetics in the U.S. originally came from Scotland, but through the years, the bloodlines were changed for various reasons. And those bloodlines made it back to Scotland, ultimately changing the original native Aberdeen Angus genetics.

When we sold cattle in my youth at the auction company, they were all Angus. You would get an odd Hereford and maybe an odd Shorthorn, but by and large, if you sold 1,000 suckled calves, 990 of them would be pure Angus. But in the United Kingdom now, the number one breed is Limousin, followed by Charolais.

Because influence from the Charolais and Limousin breeds is very evident, the Angus breed has evolved to compete with those cattle. Along the way, breeders have produced a much bigger Angus cow. In the process of that frame in crease, of course, you run across problems like calving difficulty and cows that won't produce milk because you're going away from the maternal traits of the animal.

TB: Geordie, you knew that if Scotland could not preserve purebred native Aberdeen Angus, no other country could. Why were you sure those bloodlines should be preserved?

GS: Aberdeen Angus is a very distinguished name - almost as well known as Coca-Cola in terms of being recognized worldwide - and that is due to the type of cattle I'm talking about. These easy-fleshing, deep-bodied, very maternal, exceptionally fertile cattle are the cattle from my youth. You can put them all over the world, which people did. Angus were scattered from South America to Canada, from Australia to Africa, and these cattle seem to adapt to the conditions in different climates. That's because they were designed originally to be forage consumers rather than grain consumers.

TB: Geordie, did you know right away that it would become your cause to preserve the breed?

GS: It became, if you like, a passion - simply because I remembered the cattle for what they were and what they did for the industry worldwide. The integrity of the cattle was never in question for me. These native-origin cattle are truly the genetic blueprint of the Angus breed.

TB: But you were faced with such a big task, seeking and preserving these centuries-old genetics. Where did you begin?

GS: Initially, we had very limited genetics to work with, because these original cattle were effectively on the point of extinction. In 1995, I bought two purebred native Aberdeen Angus with no imported bloodlines. The earliest semen we could get was from the 1960s because prior to that that Angus Association in the UK would not register cattle conceived by AI. It had to be natural conception. Still, that was enough to start me down the route of trying to make them the way they were.

Once we started, there were various people who realized what we were doing, and so you would get an old guy retiring and he would say, "I've got ten units of this bull born in 1964, would you like it?" So I would buy that old semen. Keep in mind that there was no data on these old cattle. In some cases, there wasn't even a photograph. All we could do was use what we had and see where we got. It wasn't exactly rocket science. If we like what we saw, we would propagate more of them, focusing on the goal of making each generation better and better.

I should mention that we'll use one or two of the calves every year for beef for our family, and we find the meat to be wonderfully marbled with a good degree of finish.

Of course, we kept he heifer calves for breeding. Through the years, we've used as many different old sires as we can on these females, just to see what is going to be the best. Not every one ahs taken us forward, but most of them have. And the important things is that along the way, we have identified the lines of cattle that basically made the native Aberdeen Angus, and on all of these cattle we have today, we can trace the pedigrees back to the mid1850s.

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Sinclair began to explore the use of the most pure Angus genetics in the mid-90s when they started out. They were striving to find superior breeding stock, and the best of the best Angus genetics offered around the world.

When one of Sinclair's managers was given Geordie Soutar's name, he went to visit the man's ranch, where two of only 16 surviving native Aberdeen Angus cattle were being raised and bred. The cattle were exactly what Sinclair was looking for - very deep bodied, early maturing, medium- to moderate-framed and extremely easy fleshing with tremendous vital organ capacity and superior eating quality.

With cattle that exhibited both tremendous eating quality and superior maternal traits, Sinclair Cattle Company was excited about the possibilities to develop their own herd further, noting that the models which the Aberdeen Angus breed were founded on - including a model cow with built-in efficiency and fertility, longevity, sustainability, good feet and legs, good udder structure and the ability to maintain a desirable weight on low cost forages and the ability to produce a thrifty calf, were ideal for their operation.

Starting with the Jorgensen cattle from South Dakota and Dale Davis cattle from Montana, Sinclair Cattle Company also purchased N Bar Primetime D806. They then acquired the nucleus of the N-Bar Ranch herd when Tom Elliott decided to liquidate. To move the N-Bar genetics forward, they looked at using the Scottish cattle as a superior outcross for the line-bred N-Bar base. The result allowed Sinclair cattle to maintain calving ease, reproductive efficiency and superior eating quality while adding a degree of muscling and greater vital organ capacity to increase their doability and ability to convert cellulose to protein.

The use of Scottish cattle was a one-step solution. Trade restrictions as a result of BSE, foot-and-mouth disease and other concerns meant that importing the genetics into the U.S. was impossible for many years. However, they continued working together across an ocean for when the time was right.

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TB: Geordie, you must have considered that someday your breeding program would develop from a personal mission to a project of significance for the worldwide cattle industry. Were you surprised when Sinclair Cattle Co. came knocking on your door?

GS: Well, the more I used these old Aberdeen Angus genetics the more I liked what I got out of them. So I just kept on doing it, building up the numbers slowly and eventually breeding with some of our own young bulls. Over the years, I've had a lot of people come from all over the world to our farm, and some of them would come with the intention of being critical. But without exception, they've all been impressed with the caliber of the cattle. They have gone away thinking, "Gee whiz, there a lot of merit in them."

We were handicapped in working with Sinclair by export difficulties for many years, so our work together actually began in Scotland. In the late 1990s, embryos from N-Bar influence cattle were sent to me. At my farm, we bred the daughters, which were 100 percent American, to 100 percent Scottish bulls. And the resulting progeny, I have to say, were absolutely delightful.

Now, Sinclair can do the same here in the United States because the minute things cleared to export, we were able to pursue our ambitions of introducing these Scottish genetics to the Sinclair Cattle herd. The result is that we have these calves born in Wyoming, and there will be another crop of calves born this coming April. Some are born of 100 percent Scottish embryos. Others are born of Scottish bulls and Sinclair cows. I saw this year's calves for the firsts time about three months ago in Wyoming. You know, it's quite a thing to see after all these years ... the integrity of the cattle preserved in that amount of calves. I believe we've got the nucleus of something absolutely brilliant.

TB: Geordie, with calves on the ground in Wyoming, what does that mean for your operation in Scotland? Is your work finished?

GS: Sinclair knows the market here. That is their domain. But on the other side of the Atlantic is my domain.

Through the years, what I've done in the UK has sort of been ridiculed rather than revered. I've enjoyed it, and I've always like the cattle, so I kept at it, I suppose because I believed in what I was doing. As far as the money goes, I would have given up a long time ago. It's been a long, hard haul, but for 11 years now, Sinclair has been a great source of support, always believing in my cause. I knew one day I would want to take the genetics farther, hence my connection with Sinclair. We're a joint venture, and we're perpetuating these cattle by bringing them here.

Our friendship has produced results in Wyoming that would never be possible in Scotland. Farms in Scotland are much smaller, and where we actually house our cattle in the winter - not for the cattle's sake but because it's so wet that we would have no grass if we let them graze year-round. It would just be a sea of mud. So in November we have to take them inside. We bed them on barely straw for the course of the winter and we let them out again the following March or April.

We have nothing like the huge cattle ranges of the West in my home country. Yet my work in Scotland, the home of the Angus breed, continues to be an integral part of this venture. We will continue to do what we have always done. We're going to make more numbers of these cattle in Scotland.

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In the UK, native Aberdeen Angus are on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust list, but Sinclair Cattle Company and Soutar hope to work together to double the world's population of the breed. They have worked to increase the publicity of the heritage of native Scotch cattle and have had tremendous impact.

For the end result, they hope to have cattle that will provide the ability to compete worldwide in the arena of eating quality.

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TB: Geordie, obviously bringing the native Aberdeen Angus genetics across the Atlantic to the U.S. was a bit of an experiment. You've seen preliminary results in the calves that are on the ground in Wyoming. How do they look?

GS: I'm fairly sure that these cattle will thrive like mushrooms on the feed you can grow in the West. What we are very interested in is how they develop, obviously, because climatically, it's totally different in Wyoming or Montana than what it is in Scotland. Though we house our cows in Scotland in the winter, our calves don't receive creep feed or anything like that. They get their mother's milk until they're weaned, and in the UK we don't sue growth hormones. So these cattle have to be very efficient converters of grass, and they are. Judging by the calves I've seen in Wyoming, I think we can pretty well see now that these cattle will perform equally well in the United States.

What we're doing is pretty exciting, and I know they have a role to play in the U.S. cattle industry. I think we'll come out of here with some eating quality that will be phenomenal - and not only that, but a solution for how we can keep the commercial cattle producer in business with the best mother cow.

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With 52 native Scottish calves on the ground in 2007, and 80 embryos implanted for a 2008 calving season, optimism for the future can be seen from Sinclair. At the same time, the Scottish/N-Bar cross bulls and the native Scotch bulls will go to a commercial breeder in Montana as a pioneer venture.

As a result of their base, the Aberdeen Angus cattle will allow producers to maintain a 1,150- to 1,250-pound cow with tremendous hybrid vigor in their calves. The cross should also allow a calf to be weaned at over 60 percent of the cow's bodyweight.

At the same time, carcass traits are exemplary. A young native Aberdeen Angus female at nine months of age and after receiving no grain produced a 9.36 intramuscular fat (IMF) score.

Ultimately, Sinclair is seeking the most efficient mother cow possible, and that model won't change. They believe that Scottish cattle will make a tremendous contribute to the Angus breed around the world, as did the N-bar program that produced N Bar Emulation EXT.

(2015 updated by Saige Albert)