From the Fall 2015 issue of the Isa Informer
By Lorenzo Lasater, President
People unfamiliar with Beefmasters often wonder about the lack of a defined breed color. Beefmasters are commonly thought of as red cattle, but there are folks breeding blacks, duns, paints and everything along the spectrum. While I don’t necessarily agree with this because it hurts our credibility in the commercial bull market, I believe breeders should be free to select the cattle
Many breeds are identified initially by their coat color. Angus are distinctively black, Charolais white and Santa Gertrudis cherry red. Longhorns are wildly painted, and Belted Galloways prove there is no limit to what we can achieve through color selection. Breeders obviously attained this incredible variation through the expenditure of genetic progress, but at what cost? Each characteristic we select for takes generational time, and often moving the needle for one trait comes at the expense of another.
To understand the color conversation in Beefmasters, we need to go back to the beginning. Actually even before that. The Hereford component in the breed came from a herd of 20,000 Hereford cattle developed by my great-grandfather, Ed Lasater. The cattle were selected specifically for having red coloration around the eyes, which protected them from sunburns around their eyes. Those burns can lead to eye cancer, to which Herefords are particularly susceptible. Even today, if a Beefmaster cow has a white, blaze or mottle face, there will almost always be red around the eyes, a throwback of more than 100 years to Ed’s selections. That is the power of genetics!
As my grandfather Tom Lasater was developing Beefmasters, he simultaneously developed the breeding philosophy we know today as the Six Essentials. These unique guiding principles separate Beefmasters from others, and BBU’s mission statement shows the importance they hold to Beefmaster breeders:
BBU’s Mission is to enhance the breeder’s ability to raise and promote cattle based upon the founding Six Essentials. Disposition, Fertility, Weight, Conformation, Hardiness and Milk Production.
The core concept underlying the Six Essentials is that breeders select cattle only for traits of economic value. This excludes the selection for aesthetics, including color. This revolutionary concept occurred at a time when most breeds were developed with an aesthetic or purpose in mind, such as size, double muscling, heavy milking, draft work, etc. This focus was usually coupled with selection for color.
The innovative step Lasater took was selecting just the good cattle, even if their hair coat was undesirable. My grandmother Mary Lasater’s famous quote on this subject is “hide color doesn’t matter when the T-bone is on the platter.” Now I can assure you Lasater would have much rather just selected the pretty red ones, but he instinctively knew that some of the genetics his developing breed needed would be found in the paints, brindles or blacks.
Throughout his career, Lasater never used color for selection, and generations of breeders adhered to this concept. As a result, Beefmaster breeders collectively soaked and imprinted all the important genetic traits for efficient Beef production into the breed. There are other breeds that were developed around the same time that made color a priority, and they paid dearly for it in one or more of the Six Essentials (think Fertility and Disposition).
Fast-forward to the modern U.S. beef industry: The commercial sector rewards uniformity of both color and type, and the marketplace heavily discriminates against any color variation, especially paints. One of the most heartbreaking scenes I see in commercial calf sales is when some multicolored piece of junk walks in the ring, they identify it as a Beefmaster and then discount it. This is not because it is a Beefmaster, but because that is a quick and easy way to label it.
People often ask me about my position on color. The L Bar herd is mostly red. I have been selecting for red for more than 15 years. The color runs from very light red to deep cherry red. We still have some cattle with white on their faces or bellies, but we have actively culled any paints, blacks, brindles or other off-colors.
In my opinion, my grandfather, father and their generations endured the difficult task of tolerating off-colors. Now, after almost 80 years of selection, I feel we have the luxury of refining and making more consistent some aesthetic traits, such as color and type. While I value slight variation in color, I want my herd as a whole to look red.
As I said in the opening, cattle breeding is a very personal endeavor, and I think people should be free to choose what feels right for them. It is, however, detrimental to the breed as a whole to propagate color patterns that the Beef industry dislikes. All Beefmaster breeders would be better off if we didn’t have to address constantly the distraction that off-colored cattle create.
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