Author: Reine Conrad
No matter the piece there are a few things every good bit of cowboy art has. Hilly landscapes, gorgeous sunsets, powerful horses, and stocky red cows with startlingly white faces. These famous muses of cowboy art are the Hereford cow. A breed with over three hundred years of history these distinctive cattle originated in Herefordshire, England. Hereford cattle existed as a breed for seventy-five years before making their way to the United States thanks to famed Kentucky statesmen Henry Clay.
But how did Herefords make it to Texas? The history of the Texas Hereford and especially how they came to exist in the remote regions of West Texas is murky at best. Captain William S. Ikard is credited with bringing the first Herefords to the lone star state and establishing the first successful breeding herd. Captain Ikard brought his cattle here in 1875 and ten years later one of the still standing Hereford ranches was established in Presidio county. Lucas Charles Brite the second purchased Capote peak and built his ranch in its shadow, establishing a herd of line bred and pasture raised Herefords. Not only did the Brite’s bring them to Texas they also established First Christian Church of Marfa and 136 years later their family still proudly displays their red and white cows. While the Brite’s may not have been the first west Texans to own Herefords, they are some of the most well-known. No matter who brought them here first it did not take west Texas long to adopt Herefords as its own.
At one point in the early 1900’s Texas was number five in the US for number of registered Herefords and this lead to the establishment of local Hereford associations like the Marfa Highland Hereford Breeders Association, many families from this group are still proud ranchers to this day. This popularity was likely because Herefords quickly proved better suited for the environment than the local shorthorn cattle, still the mascot of Marfa High school, and even out competed the Texas Longhorn. They were able to accomplish this thanks to the short, stocky stature of the original breed. Being small meant they used far less of the already sparse grass, cost less to raise and buy, and even better, these cattle are known for very quickly converting even small amount of grass into extremely high quality, delicious beef. While these days we see more black cattle than red around here there is good reason for that too. That gorgeous white face leaves them vulnerable to ocular squamous cell carcinoma, AKA cancer eye. Some ranchers noticed and changed their breeding styles to encourage red pigmentation around the eye to reduce the risk, but others opted to just move on to other breeds, most commonly the black angus or more heat tolerant, parasite resistant breeds like the dumbo eared Brahma.
Some ranchers who moved on still keep a Hereford cow here and there to remind them of the history, or maybe to cross breed with their other cattle to keep some of the old-world genetics and encourage the hybrid vigor cross breeding creates. Despite the reduction of Hereford across the desert of west Texas we still see their gorgeous faces often thanks to Sul Ross State university who still raises Hereford that contain original genetics making them smaller than most. We also get to see them thanks to famed cowboy artists like our own Wayne Baize, who does still breed Hereford cattle. However they got here, wherever they’ve gone the Hereford will also have the heart of west Texas.
Image by Mike Capron