Herb Rhodes has been trying for 20 years to win a belt buckle.
Not just any ol' buckle. He wanted the buckle finally presented to his son, Herb Jr., in Valentine, Neb., by the Sandhills Cattle Association this summer.
This was the “Grand Champion Steer” buckle, signifying that Rhodes and his crew in north Omaha and the ranchers who oversee his cattle succeeded in breeding and raising a steer that yielded an 832-pound carcass with a 15.91-square-inch rib-eye steak and other qualities that topped some of the best steers in the state.
“You're trying to get the right phenotypes,” Rhodes explained, lapsing into the technical term for traits in livestock. “We improve them so we're delighting our customers,” namely cattle feeders who buy his certified Angus calves and finish them for slaughter.
Rhodes' American Harvest Co. is dedicated to a craft practiced for hundreds of years: the selection and mix of breeds and individual cows and bulls to produce calves that survive, thrive and produce high-quality meat efficiently.
“This was pretty rewarding for them,” said Ronna Morse of Valentine, manager of the cattle association.
And the size of that rib-eye? “That's huge,” said University of Nebraska meat scientist Matt Spangler, and evidence that improving cattle through breeding is a continuing art that's practiced in a state that, in many ways, seems to be designed to raise cattle.
Over the past 15 or 20 years, Rhodes said, breeding has made beef more uniform — fewer “tough” steaks, for example — and more flavorful.
“It goes back to the type of breed as well as the genetics within the breed,” he said. “Angus cattle give a higher marbling content in the muscle structure, so the meat is more palatable and tastier for the consumer. We're satisfying the consumer by giving a better quality of beef that does not have the variations we used to find.”
Rhodes once worked in Swift & Co.'s meat-packing plant in Omaha. He took classes and became a manager, then moved to Western Electric's Millard-area factory and eventually became a commodity buyer, purchasing copper and other raw materials and learning the business of hedging.
Combined with his family's penchant for raising animals — sheep, for example, and bees — Rhodes' after-work hours led him to other commodities, such as corn and soybeans, and eventually cattle and horses.
The American Harvest Co. was the result, a firm based today in north Omaha's historic Jewell Building at 24th and Grant Streets. The company's beef ends up on consumers' tables nationwide, mixed in with other beef products bearing Angus labels.
The cattle business gave Rhodes, 70, a connection to the state he would have missed if he had stuck only to Omaha. Nebraska's economy is based on grass and water, he said, and that means livestock.
“It does go back to cattle,” he said. “Sometimes that gets lost and we think we're a suburb of Chicago. It's a beautiful state. Being in the city, you can lose that perspective.”
Although born and raised in Omaha, Rhodes' agricultural heritage is strong. His grandfather farmed in South Omaha. Ancestors farmed in Missouri and Kansas and, before that, in slavery.
Even before he retired after 36 years with Western Electric, Rhodes determined to pursue the cattle business with his whole heart. “Our goal has been to have the best cows that can be provided within the state of Nebraska. It doesn't happen accidentally.”
He leases pasture near Bassett, Neb., where ranch manger Ted Martin oversees the herd and the cattlemen who manage them.
“We stay east of the 100th meridian,” Rhodes said, a natural dividing line between grassland that's just right for cattle and land that can be too dry for grazing much of the time.
He mixes some Hereford in with black Angus cattle, ending up with hybrid advantages but retaining the calves' certified Angus status. “That has worked well for us,” he said.
The traits that Rhodes' customers want can be influenced by selective breeding. Spangler, an assistant professor at NU's College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, said generations of breeders like Rhodes have enhanced the economic value of today's cattle.
Speedy and efficient weight gain, good size and fertility, good mobility, an even temperament, adequate milk production, environmental adaptability, quantity and grade of meat produced and even size at birth can be steered by genetic selection of the cow and bull to produce the most profitable calves.
Compared with a century ago, Spangler said, cattle are “dramatically different. That's due to selection.”
But the process can be tricky.
A cow that can produce about 20 pounds of milk is a good target. Too little milk, and a calf wouldn't gain enough weight; too much and the cow might eat more than it should. When an animal is harvested, Spangler said, its meat should be lean, but too little “marbling” of fat within the meat can produce less-tasty steaks.
And the influence of breeding doesn't guarantee results, Spangler said.
Just as a tall human mother and father usually end up with tall children, calves with big mothers and fathers tend to be big. Yet a pair of docile, easy-to-handle parents doesn't rule out aggressiveness in every calf.
Geneticists would like to breed cattle with inborn protection against disease, but so far that hasn't been too successful, Spangler said.
Researchers have found that various traits can be inherited in certain percentages through breeding, with the rest due to chance or other factors, Spangler said. Birth weight is 30 percent to 40 percent “heritable,” size of frame 70 percent, speed of weight gain 30 percent, temperament 40 percent.
Breeding also takes place in the context of the herd's environment, he said, including nutrition, weather, soil, grasses and other factors alongside breeding.
“There's not a magical program where you say, 'I'm going to feed this animal for 120 days and the outcome will be XYZ,' ” Spangler said. That's where management figures into the art of raising beef cattle.
Researchers know how to genetically modify cattle with scientific methods, beyond selective breeding, he said, but so far it's too costly for livestock, and a segment of the public would be concerned.
“It's something that mainstream animal production hasn't pursued,” he said.
Angus, Hereford and other breeds in the bos taurus subspecies tend to do better in regions with weather extremes like Nebraska, Spangler said. Bos indicus cattle, such as the Brahman, tend to thrive in warmer climates.
Selecting bulls can be highly technical. Bulls are rated numerically by “expected progeny difference” for various traits, such as weight gain. Several EPDs are combined into an economic index value, an EIV, that gives ranchers an idea of the economic value of calves from one bull versus another, Spangler said.
That's how Rhodes' son can choose bulls that are rated in the top 10 percent for the traits he wants. Although his office is more than 200 miles away, Rhodes keeps close contact with his cattle through the managers in the field, as well as visiting the Sand Hills four or five times a year.
He said calves should be small enough, about 72 pounds, to be delivered without assistance, yet grow enough that they weigh 500 pounds when they stop nursing and 750 pounds as a yearling.
The cow, meanwhile, is inseminated while nursing so it will bear one calf per year, usually in the early spring. He keeps a certain number of heifers every year as future breeding stock. “You don't want to lose your genetics. That's how you improve your herd.”
Morse, the Sandhills Cattle Association manager, said breeders like Rhodes learn from each others' practices through the annual contest, which includes processing the animals and analyzing the yields in detail.
“Each individual uses the information a little bit differently,” Morse said, perhaps assessing how the offspring of a certain bull turn out or watching another contestant's cattle for clues to improve their own breeding.
“This is just a tool that our members can use to help them and to have a little bit of fun with the competition,” she said.
Rhodes' term as marketing and commerce director for the Nebraska Cattlemen recently expired. He holds an honorary doctorate from Midland College, awarded for his social and community contributions during the civil rights movement and since then.
Honorary degrees are sometimes awarded to people concluding their careers, but Rhodes said he has no such plans.
His health is good, and his office wall features huge printouts that track commodity prices, alongside ribbons, plaques and that grand champion belt buckle.
“It's just not in my vision to completely retire,” Rhodes said. “I couldn't replace it with any activity that I enjoy any more than what I'm doing.”