Texas longhorns roam in Putnam County
BUFFALO, W.Va. -- Noah Perry has spent a lot of time observing social interactions among cattle.
"There is a really pecking order. There is a boss cow. They rank each other, all the way down to the bottom. Sometimes there is a challenge," Perry sa8id
"Sometimes, two or three cows will gang up on another one and start bullying her. But they usually solve it pretty quickly."
Perry, a local farmer who helped create the Putnam County Livestock Care Advisory Board, cares for 100 Texas longhorns today on his farm near the Kanawha River in Putnam County.
Grown female longhorns routinely care for each other's calves when mothers walk off to eat hay, which Perry buys in 1,250-pound bales. When they return, other mothers leave to enjoy their hay-meals.
"Sometimes, one or two cows will babysit for 10 or 20 calves, while the others graze on grass. There is a good system of communication between them," Perry said.
Perry's farm has about 60 acres of grass, which will soon begin growing and providing a greater portion of his longhorns' daily meals.
"February and March are our two worst months. They are muddy and they are windy," he said.
Perry, a Wayne County native, runs one of the few Texas longhorn farms in West Virginia, but there are several more longhorns being raised in the state today.
"There was a young kid in Mason County who started with longhorns to develop a herd as part of an FFA [Future Farmers of America] project," Perry said. "And Dave Miller markets longhorn beef from his farm in Tunnelton in Putnam County."
"Over the years, cattle production has dropped in West Virginia, because of massive production in the West," said state Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick.
"In 1942, our peak year of production, West Virginia had 700,000 beef cows. Now, we have about 360,000 to 370,000 cows in West Virginia and the sheep market has basically disappeared from the charts."
Today, poultry are the main farm products produced in the Mountain State.
"I sell about 40 or 45 calves a year," Perry said. "I have had over 900 calves born since I started this farm.
"Occasionally, I sell a breeding female. They are fertile, gentle and are excellent mothers."
Perry's Buffalo farm has 45 female longhorns and several calves born since early February. He has only two bulls.
Texas longhorns are "ruminants," animals that also include: buffalo, sheep, alpacas, deer, elk and goats. The stomachs of some ruminants, like Texas longhorns, are as big as 55-gallon drums.
"Their stomachs are fermentation vats that enable them to eat large quantities of hay, grass or corn. Bacteria, fungi and yeast help digest this for them. Longhorns often eat for an hour, then lie down and chew it. Sometimes, they burp it back up and chew it more."
Longhorns, Perry said, also like potato skins, brewers' grains, carrots, cucumbers, Vidalia onions and tomatoes. Sometimes, Perry buys old tomato vines from nearby Gritt's Greenhouse to feed his cows.
Perry keeps only two bulls on his farm.
In the summer, each bull "will lose 250 to 300 pounds, when they begin chasing the cows around. They drop from 2,100 or 2,200 pounds down to 1,800 pounds by August."
After they get pregnant, Texas longhorn cows have a nine-month gestation period before their baby calves are born.
Perry spends a lot of his time driving and walking around his fields and hills, usually accompanied by his three dogs, monitoring the welfare of his cattle.
"Rover, a pure-bred Labrador retriever named after the best dog in the world, thinks he is a cattle dog. The other two -- Ben-Bud and Candy -- are blue heelers," Perry said.
"I also keep a donkey on my farm to keep coyotes away."
Last month, the state the Department of Agriculture released statistics showing commercial red meat production dropped by nine percent in West Virginia between January 2012 and January 2013, while commercial "hog slaughter" dropped by 17 percent.
Meanwhile, total U.S. beef production rose by 7 percent and pork production rose by 4 percent during the same period.
Helmick believes the new "farm-to-table movement" is something that will help West Virginia farmers.
"There is a lot of opportunity in West Virginia, but we have to get some leadership. Our current group of farmers can create and train a new generation."
The number of farms dwindled from 105,000 in 1935 -- the peak year in Mountain State history -- to 22,000 today.
"However, we will have the largest number of family-owned farms in the country. We are a very independent-minded people," Helmick said.
Perry said, "I sell all my bulls to somewhere else. The last bulls I bought to breed my cows came from Ohio and Kentucky.
"I sell females when they get old and buy replacements. I buy about five females a year. I have a guy who gets them for me from Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia or West Virginia."
Perry said it costs between $400 and $600 to buy a replacement female. For a mature female cow, it often costs between $600 and $1,000. Black Texas longhorns typically cost another $100.
"That is generally about two-thirds the price of an Angus. That makes it easier for a young person to get into the business and develop a herd."
The Spanish brought ancestors of today's longhorns into Mexico 500 to 600 years ago, Perry said.
"They crowded through Mexico up through what is now the Western United States. The British began to import them into the Eastern United States in the mid-1800s. But longhorns almost became extinct.
"But the numbers of have built up in the last 10 to 15 years," Perry said. "Some people want their hides and horns for decorations."
Reach Paul J. Nyden at email@example.com or 304-348-5164.