MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
Texas longhorns have made a stunning comeback - the cattle, not the college football team. In 1964, there were believed to be fewer than 1,500 longhorns in existence. Today, there are more than 300,000. Longhorns have grown popular among weekend ranchers: people who want a symbol of Western heritage but don't want to work that hard.
NPR's John Burnett attended the horn showcase in Fort Worth, where longhorn breeders ask the time-honored question...
JOHN BURNETT: Whose is longer, yours or mine? That's what they came here to find out at the Will Rogers Coliseum last month. Under bright lights, the stock pens are full of handsome creatures with widespread horns, their hides brown, white, red, orange and brindled.
(Soundbite of chute gate)
(Soundbite of whistling)
Unidentified Man #1: Come on in, buddy.
BURNETT: The cowboys pull a sienna-colored cow into the measuring chute and struggle to hold a string along the length of her great, curved horns.
Unidentified Man #1: Now let's get a measurement. Guys, open your gates and we're gonna turn her back this way.
Unidentified Man #2: Got tape?
Unidentified Man #1: Got tape. Total measurement: 80 and a half inches total horn. Put the cow back in her pen.
BURNETT: Her horn span is more than six and a half feet. She will win her class at this year's horn showcase.
Mr. DONNY TAYLOR (Longhorn Rancher; Heavy Equipment Operator, Union Pacific Railroad): We sell 'em by the inch, not the pound.
BURNETT: Donny Taylor, in a black vest and a black hat, is a heavy equipment operator for Union Pacific Railroad. He raises longhorns at his ranch in East Texas as a lucrative side business. Taylor says buyers like them because they're easier to keep.
Mr. TAYLOR: Longhorns are cheaper to feed than regular cattle. They'll browse - they're like a deer, they'll eat anything in the woods. They'll keep your fence rope clean. You want to clear property? Don't buy a goat. Buy a longhorn. They'll clean them up for you. The good Lord built them that way.
Unidentified Man #3: And your first-place winner in this class: Hunt's Ultimate Warrior, breeder was Doug Hunt...
BURNETT: One of the names you hear again and again at this contest is that of a 72-year-old man in a yellow cowboy shirt and jeans, leaning against the panels.
Mr. DOUG HUNT: My name is Doug Hunt. I live in St. George, Utah. I have raised longhorns around 25 years. I was the owner of Hunt's Command Respect, that's probably the premier bull in the world right now. In fact, his son just passed 80 inches. We've been in Utah and been in longhorns. And that's what we do for a living.
BURNETT: Prize beef cattle are coveted mainly for their beefiness. But you quickly learn at this competition, there's only one standard that matters.
Mr. HUNT: Horns is where it's at. I'm not in the beef business. I try to raise longhorns because that's where the money is.
BURNETT: Ranchers who raise beef cattle don't have a very high opinion of these people who raise animals for no other purpose than the length of their horns. But the longhorn raisers don't seem to care. Mike Crawford owns an advertising and PR firm in Dallas and is a weekend rancher. He stands in a pen with a pretty brick-red cow, her enormous horns lowered as she eats a snack from his hand.
Mr. MIKE CRAWFORD: They may look intimidating. You can look at this particular one. This is Cherry Jubilee. Her horns measure 66 inches tip to tip. And she is so friendly.
BURNETT: Crawford likes to bring his clients to his Red Peak Ranch, near Brownwood, Texas.
Mr. CRAWFORD: I bring out executives from the city and we go out there and we measure their horns. Truly, it's better than taking them out for a round of golf.
BURNETT: You're not sounding to me like a traditional Texas rancher at all.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CRAWFORD: I'm not. I'm not. If I had to work at it, I wouldn't have any.
BURNETT: Time was longhorns were anything but pets. They were wild Spanish cattle brought to the New World by none other than Christopher Columbus. They made their way from Santo Domingo to Mexico to Texas, where they adapted to the harsh Southwestern terrain and became the foundation of the American cattle industry. The Southwestern writer J. Frank Dobie described them in his famous treatise, �The Longhorns.� This passage is read by Don Graham, the J. Frank Dobie Professor of American and English literature at the University of Texas at Austin.
Professor DON GRAHAM (American and English Literature, University of Texas): But I have an immense respect for the breed. They possessed an adamantine strength, an aboriginal vitality, a Spartan endurance, and a fierce nobility that somehow makes one associate them with Roman legions and Sioux warriors.
BURNETT: Fierce nobility, however, does not necessarily make for a good marbled ribeye. Ranchers seeking to improve the rangy, raw-boned longhorn began importing better-muscled European cattle in the 1880s. Like the bison before it, the true Texas longhorn was headed to extinction. The federal government stepped in the 1920s and 1930s and created two protected herds - one in Oklahoma and one in Nebraska. They're still there.
The Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America formed in 1964 to perpetuate the breed. Today, there are more than 330,000 animals in every state in the union - nearly half of them in Texas, where they've become a common sight in roadside pastures.
Mr. BOB CROPP (Oklahoma State University): When you drive up and down the highways today, I mean, it is amazing how many longhorns are just everywhere. And so, the breed is far from being extinct.
BURNETT: Bob Cropp teaches beef cattle management at Oklahoma State University and is an authority on the longhorn. He says the breed's startling comeback is being driven by urbanites moving to the country who want to own a piece of frontier history and to get an agricultural tax exemption by putting livestock on their property, which can save them more than 50 percent on property taxes.
Mr. CROPP: And the livestock that is common to Texas is the Texas longhorn. They go out and they build them a ranch home and got a front porch and a rocking chair and they got their Texas longhorn grazing in the front yard.
BURNETT: Every year, there are a few longhorns slaughtered for their lean meat and sold for rodeo stock. But mostly, they are ornamental.
(Soundbite of crowd)
Unidentified Man #4: Hey Scott(ph).
Unidentified Man #5: How's it going?
Unidentified Man #4: Good. How are you?
BURNETT: In a Fort Worth hotel room at the horn showcase awards dinner, the men wear dress boots and the ladies sport longhorn jewelry. They are about to collect their trophies for the longest horn span, which they use in marketing their animals. Mike Bowman owns the End of the Trail Ranch in Denton, Kansas.
Mr. MIKE BOWMAN (End of the Trail Ranch): Big horns, pretty cows, you know, pretty colors.
BURNETT: What you're breeding, it's been called yard art.
Mr. BOWMAN: That's right. It is art. I never dreamed when I started this that I would ever sell a heifer for 150,000. Pretty amazing.
BURNETT: The famed author J. Frank Dobie wrote: The Texas longhorn has made more history than any other breed of cattle the civilized world has ever known. Who could've predicted that this would be its last chapter?
John Burnett, NPR News.