Alex Lasater, at The Dale Lasater Ranch, the site of the foundation Beefmaster herd, explains how selecting cattle on the Six Essentials has turned out seven decades later.
Story by Maggie Malson, photos provided by The Dale Lasater Ranch
When Tom Lasater set out to develop a new breed of cattle in 1931, he was guided in his quest by economics and Mother Nature. Productivity was the impetus when he began breeding his father’s Brahman bulls to the family’s ring-eyed Hereford cow herd, while also adding in Shorthorn bloodlines.
This three-way cross, named Beefmaster by Lasater and recognized as an official breed by the USDA in 1954, remains one of the top five breeds, based on the number of cattle in the world today.
“My grandfather said all his decisions were economic decisions,” says Alex Lasater, a fifth-generation rancher who owns and manages the foundation Beefmaster herd in Matheson, Colo. “He was exceedingly pragmatic. My father was the same way. I have bank debt and cattle debt just like my grandfather did. Two generations later, I’m facing the same challenges my grandfather faced; therefore, if an animal isn’t productive, it needs to go.”
The younger Lasater holds true to the six essentials on which the breed was developed — fertility, disposition, weight, conformation, hardiness, and milk production — when he manages the cows on the short-grass prairie of eastern Colorado, taking after his grandfather and his father, the late Dale Lasater, an astute cattleman himself.
Due to such strict culling pressure, the herd size does not grow but has been maintained at around 400 head. A closed herd since 1937, no new genetics have been introduced for more than 80 years.
“We’re getting rid of 100 cows a year because they fall out of the program; they don’t wean a calf or they don’t rebreed,” Lasater explains. “And we need to expose all of our 180 yearling heifers to bulls to keep our numbers up. When the geneticists came to visit the ranch in the ‘50s, no one had seen ruthless culling pressure like that of Tom Lasater. They thought this genetic experiment could not continue, but it has. We do not give any mama cow a second chance. Our cattle need to pay their way every year.”
It may seem harsh, but Lasater explains that even if a cow loses a calf through no fault of her own, she is culled. This is because she will be at an unfair advantage when compared to her counterparts who have nursed a calf until weaning. If she breeds back, it may not be because she is superior, but because she has had more time to recover.
“We do not want one-hit wonders,” Lasater adds. “Those of us in the cattle business know that the most expensive cows are the ones that don’t breed back. It goes back to every decision being an economic decision. Grandfather said, ‘If she doesn’t wean a calf and give me a dividend, she is my dividend.’”
Lessons from history
Lasater’s roots in the cattle business trace back to 1882 when his great-grandfather, Edward C. Lasater, purchased a ranch in South Texas and helped found the town of Falfurrias. At one time the ranch was nearly 350,000 acres, but it was highly leveraged and suffered through the down economy during the Great Depression. Ed Lasater died in 1930 and Tom left his first year at Princeton University to come back to the ranch.
“Grandfather saw his father’s empire reduced to nothing,” Lasater says.
With few resources left, Tom Lasater took the knowledge gained from watching his father crossbreed cattle and focused on breeding cattle based on economic traits.
For 10 years, Lasater developed the Beefmaster breed by using the traits he found most important to productivity, culling wild cattle that were hard to gather on the extensive range pastures, and making disposition a priority.
Cow Camp at Falfurrias. Dale Lasater wrote about Edward C. Laster establishing the town and Lasater Ranch in south Texas.
He evaluated cattle by conformation, defining it as “type on the hook, not type on the hoof,” meaning muscling and carcass were more important than what the live animal looked like. By 1940, he had 2,000 head.
In a paper he wrote dated March 26, 1961, Tom Lasater detailed the genetic sources and development of the breed. He said that while his father was not alive by that time, he still credited him with establishing the source genetics from which the crossbreeding could take place.
“The world did not need another breed of cattle,” says Alex Lasater. “The worldwide success of the Beefmaster breed is because of the ‘Lasater Philosophy of Cattle Raising,’ which can be applied to any herd of any breed in any region.”
In 1948, a family friend told Tom about a ranch available in Colorado, which he and his wife, Mary, purchased within days of seeing it, thus The Lasater Ranch was established in the Centennial state. The Lasaters continued to purchase land in Colorado, and at one point ran on 28,000 deeded acres.
“Grandfather tells the story that it was just supposed to be a summer place,” Lasater explains. “For three summers, they shipped cattle up to Colorado and back to Texas in the fall. He started to notice that the cattle would hair over, so he said, ‘Let’s see if they can survive the winter up here.’ They survived brilliantly. As he told it, ‘One summer we just forgot to go home.’”
As the years went by, Alex Lasater says his grandfather realized the value of letting Mother Nature do more of the work.
“He stopped using pesticides and insecticides on the cattle,” Lasater explains. “The cattle that were covered in flies and insects were culled from the herd. We have a very resilient cow herd. We want the weak links to not breed back and want them to fall out of the herd. Grandfather was preaching low-input management in 1950 before it was even thought about.”
In addition, Lasater explains how the older generations realized the value of what some people may call pests — coyotes, red ants, and prairie dogs, and stopped trying to rid the landscape of them.
“Grandfather said, ‘Everything has a purpose. Everything put here on our ranch was put here by someone smarter than we are — Mother Nature.’ Most every [plant] has a palatability window to domestic livestock and we are not going to intervene. We’ll let nature do most of the work.”
Dale Lasater passed on a legacy of cattle raising to his son, Alex, and grandson, Thomas.
The Lasater philosophy continues
“My grandfather’s legacy is the development of the breed,” Lasater explains. “My grandfather worked with nature, but my father took it to the next level. My father’s legacy is rotational grazing and restoring the prairie.
“In terms of land stewardship practices, our goal is to return all our land to pre-barbed wire conditions,” Lasater says.
Growing up on the ranch, watching and learning from his grandfather and father, instilled many qualities in Alex. Although he spent 20 years living and working in Mexico, he maintained his Beefmaster connections.
“There are a lot of Beefmaster breeders in Mexico and I would help arrange tours for them to come back to the ranch,” he says.
Lasater came back to the ranch full time in 2011 and was able to work alongside his father until Dale passed away in 2016.
“Working alongside my father and watching him look at cattle and comment about cattle are some of my greatest memories,” Lasater says. “We always said yearling bull selection was the most important activity of our ranch year. I always enjoyed learning the nuances of the cow herd from him.
“My grandfather was really tough,” Lasater describes. “What he was able to accomplish was pretty big, especially in light of seeing his father lose everything.”
Now in a situation similar to his grandfather’s, Lasater is starting over. He purchased the majority of the foundation cow herd from his aunt and uncles in 2015 and is working on 5,000 deeded acres and 13,000 leased acres since the land was split among his dad’s siblings.
He has become laser focused — as he describes it — on the foundation cow herd and land stewardship.
“We have cross fenced the entire ranch to increase the cattle density,” Lasater says. “We want the herds to bunch up, till, fertilize, harvest, eat the grass, then move on, so the land can rest. We are focused on forage production and water development. Every generation, we have to learn to do more with less.”
Ringside during the family’s annual bull and female sale.
Building on the foundation
When asked how the cow herd had changed through the years, Lasater says, “My father always said we could have started with different source cattle, but our herd would look the same because when you are selecting for productive cattle, you arrive at the same place, no matter what you start with. You get to cattle that work wherever you are, whether you’re in Montello, Nev., or Matheson, Colo.”
He adds that his grandfather noted there could be a variety of phenotypes in the herd, but they will all be right for the environment.
“If you demand that your cattle be productive, only the phenotypes that work will be the ones to stay,” Lasater says. “If you have productive pressure on your cattle, they will never be bigger than what the environment can handle. In the six essentials of cattle raising, one is weight. That is not heavyweight, but rather weight which is optimal to my environment.”
Furthermore, Lasater says that if a program is headed in the right direction, the bulls and females produced each year should be better than those from the previous year.
“Obviously you could have your best heifers but also have a drought year and the calves didn’t breed up,” he admits. “You have to plug in the environment variable into all the decisions. His father, Dale, thought 45 days was a plenty tight window of breeding. He did not want fertility to overshadow the other essentials.
“Our dance with Mother Nature is a finely-tuned balance and we don’t want to go to single trait or multi-trait selection,” Lasater explains. “We want to adhere to the six essentials; they are a perfect balance. Plus, we use technology to help with those decisions. For me to decide who to mate to who might cause this closed herd to disintegrate.”
Dale Lasater spent a lifetime working with cattle and Mother Nature.
A final Lasater philosophy that Alex stands by is that pedigree does not guarantee a productive cow herd.
“Grandfather said the pedigree of my cattle is on their hip,” Lasater explains. For example, in the summer of 2018, if you walked into our cow herd and saw a cow with a six on her hip and she is obviously not a two-year-old, then she is a 12-year-old cow. She would have been born in 2006 and would have her 11th calf at her side. There is no question that she would not be there if she didn’t show up at the weaning pen with a calf at side for 10 consecutive years.”
Lasater offers some final advice for other cattlemen, regardless of the breed of cattle they raise.
“Grandfather always said, ‘Ranching is simple. The hard part is to keep it simple. Pick a direction and stick with it. Your cattle will respond to the bar you set for them. Choose your course and settle in for 50 years.’ We’re continuing with the Lasater philosophy of cattle raising. We still think the six essentials are important, commingled with land stewardship,” Lasater adds.
Seventy years and counting
The family will celebrate their 70th annual bull sale this September. The format of the sale is called a cowboy auction.
“When a bull comes in the ring, everyone who is interested in that bull holds up a card with their buyer number,” Lasater explains. The auctioneer quietly calls out a base price, then it goes up from there. Whoever still has their card up at the end is the winning bidder. It is very transparent. We want the 80-year-old and the buyer from Mexico to understand what’s going on.”
In 2018, cattle sold to 17 states and Mexico. Many of their bulls sell to large commercial operations in places like New Mexico, Nevada, and Idaho.
“We want to sell our bulls for a fair price, but we don’t need to sell them for a crazy price,” Lasater says. “We love selling bulls. The commercial breeders are the lifeblood of our business. Most of our bull buyers have black-hided commercial cow herds so that, for us, is a pat on the back because people are seeing that our bulls are providing a hybrid vigor pop to their calf crop.”
The Lasaters have many repeat customers, including a Texas baseball legend.
“Since I lost my father in the horse wreck in October 2016, Nolan Ryan has been an incredible sounding board and mentor to me,” Lasater says. “He comes up here several times a year to check on me and make sure the wheels are not coming off. He has been a long-time supporter of this cow herd. For years, he was an important part of our yearling bull selection.”
In addition to marketing bulls, females are pre-sold on a contract basis, with buyers making their selections the same weekend as the bull sale.
“We have been very fortunate to have the demand for our bred females,” Lasater says. “Buyers commit in April if they want cow contracts and send in a deposit. After they are all in, the buyers’ names are put in a hat and drawn out for the order in which they make their selections. We sell contracts in groups of three.”
Also included in the sale weekend is a field day, with speakers sharing about important industry topics.
“Ranching is sometimes a very solitary activity and I really appreciate the fellowship and visiting with customers,” Lasater says.
Nolan Ryan (right) was a long time friend of Tom and Dale Lasater. He spoke at the 50th anniversary bull sale, and continues to serve as a mentor to Alex Lasater, who is carrying on the family’s Beefmaster legacy.
Working Hard is excerpted from the March 2019 issue of The Cattleman magazine. Join today to start your subscription.
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