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Lowline cattle on a mission

These little cattle are for beef, not for show

lowline cattle with handler

Go ahead. Ask Lowline breeders what their small-size cattle are good for.

They won’t be offended.

When we asked, the breeders put docility and feed efficiency at the top of their list of useful characteristics. Many sell beef directly to consumers and say there’s no better testimony to quality and taste than repeat customers.

The first thing they’ll set straight is that the breed is 100 per cent Black Angus genetics. No gimmicks. No dwarfism gene. No “miniature” involved — just pure Angus in a compact package.

Lowline cows stand 38-44 inches high and weigh 650 to 1,100 pounds. Bulls stand 39 to 49 inches high and weigh 1,100 to 1,400 pounds with older bulls reaching 1,600 pounds.

All registered Canadian and American Lowlines are DNA tested for parentage and verification back to the Australian foundation herd at Trangie Research Centre. In 1929, the centre imported some Angus cattle from the Glencamock herd at Brandon, Man., to start a purebred Angus program for the purpose of selling quality breeding stock to producers. The herd was closed in the mid-1960s when the focus turned to research on performance testing leading into a 19-year project to evaluate how selection for growth rate would affect efficiency of converting grass to meat. One herd of Angus cattle was established to select for high yearling growth rate (high line), another to select for low yearling growth rate (low line) and a third as the control. On the whole, the high line proved to be slightly more efficient than the low line at converting grass to meat, but the conversion ratios for the majority of individuals in the low line were similar to those in the high line. The low line’s advantage was its smaller body size; therefore, lower feed intake, and, in turn, higher stocking rates that ultimately yielded more beef per acre.

The Australian Lowline Cattle Association was formed the same day as the auction to disperse the herd after the research program ended in 1992. Four years later, six Lowline cows were imported to Canada for an embryo transfer program based in Alberta. The Canadian Lowline Cattle Association was formed that year and in 1998 Agriculture Canada recognized Lowline as a distinct breed.

lowline cattle
Calves of half-blood heifers bred Galloway were near as big as their dams by September.

Easy to handle; easy to like

“Once we found out how nice and easy to handle these cattle were, it didn’t take long. Within a year and a half we were very happy and made the decision to change over,” Brian says. “Raising the big cattle and Lowlines side by side, we could see for ourselves how much less feed it took to raise a calf to maturity or slaughter. We learned you get more beef for your buck with Lowlines.”

Today, they run 60 registered fullblood females and 30 percentage cows.

The decision had implications for their end market as well because the big cows weaned 800-pound calves, whereas the fullblood Lowline calves weighed around half that.

Their freezer beef market evolved with all percentage calves going into a 75-day finishing program. Their taste preference is for grain-fed beef, so the calves receive a homegrown oat-barley grain mix with free-choice hay from May into July. They finish out at 800 to 900 pounds at 15 to 17 months of age, yielding 500- to 600-pound carcasses.

Diana Lillefloren of Idaho Lowline Cattle Co. at Hayden, Idaho, says she can’t keep enough Lowline beef on hand to keep up with customer demand. She got into Lowlines in 2009 after learning about their quiet nature and feed efficiency. They’ve proven out on both counts, with feed cost being about half that of her Angus cows.

Katherine and Darren Wise of Tunk Mountain Ranch, near Omak, Washington, owe their start in the beef business three years ago to Lowline cattle. They were looking for some type of livestock to raise on the 120-acre farm they had purchased and were first drawn to Lowlines because of the breed’s docile nature. They purchased three bred cows and a bull and have built the herd up to 17 animals without one birthing problem.

Commercial conveniences

“Lowline is a breed that can help commercial guys,” Russ says. Their bull customers appreciate the calving ease, especially for heifers. They like that they can downsize their cow herd in one cross using Lowline bulls, thereby reducing feed requirements and cost in short order. Meat quality and the smaller portion size are important for commercial customers who farm-gate beef.

He says Lowline cattle are reminiscent of the original Angus cattle of the sixties. In their grass-fed operation, the cows mature at 900 to 1,000 pounds and the bulls at 1,200 to 1,700 pounds. The percentage calves wean off at around 580 to 650 pounds.

In the Shields Valley near Wilsall, Montana, Karen and David Shockey of Muddy Creek Ranch run a 200-head grass-fed natural-beef operation supplying packaged beef for their own customers and a restaurant at Wilsall, a handful of high-end restaurants at Bozeman, the school district and some retail stores.

The calm temperament, calving ease, hardy calves and feed efficiency of Lowlines are bonuses in their operation, Karen says. Her late father’s initial reason for introducing Lowline cattle into their Angus-based breeding program in 2004 was to get more primals per acre.

Using Lowline bulls on the Angus cows has reduced cow size and they find they can graze 10 Lowlines for every six regular-sized Angus cows on the same number of acres, even though they had been selecting their Angus genetics for performance in a grass-fed program.

“We also needed the ability to grass finish steers at 18 months that would meet all our criteria,” she explains. The target is at least 60 per cent in the choice grade. The Angus calves couldn’t finish in one winter and they found that holding them the full two years changed the flavour of the beef more toward the gamey side.

Up to 120 head a year are processed at the state’s only USDA-approved plant, which designates three selected harvest dates to process Muddy Creek Ranch cattle only.

All 170 commercial Angus and Lowline-influence cows are bred Lowline. The cross-bred calves weigh 55 to 75 pounds at birth, finish out by 18 months and yield 550- to 600-pound carcasses — big enough to be profitable without compromising quality.

Brian Walters, Walters Land and Cattle Co., at Fort Lupton, Colorado, and partner with the Shockeys in Foundation Beef Sires, has collected data over seven years comparing commercial cattle to Lowline-influence cattle in his grain-fed operation.

Eye on the future

They were seriously considering getting out of cattle altogether five years ago when they found a small Lowline herd in Alberta for sale and purchased six females. The small size and docility of the Lowline breed were exactly what they were looking for to encourage involvement of their children, James and Melissa, who found the full-size Angus cattle too intimidating. The family now has 18 fullblood females and three fullblood bulls along with some commercial Angus and Galloway cattle.

True to testimony, they’ve found their Lowline cows to be easy calvers with good milking ability that deliver hardy 40- to 50-pound calves.

The fullblood cows weigh 850 to 1,000 pounds, which keeps feed costs down, yet the calves wean off around 450 to 500 pounds. Pound for pound this is a higher percentage of cow weight than the calves off the 1,300-pound cows, Cathy says.

They can attest to the breed’s claim of high rib-eye area per hundredweight with one of their bull calves having an 11.72-square-inch rib-eye area at 800 pounds. The optimum rib-eye area for finished beef regardless of breed is 11 to 15 square inches.

This is the first year they’ve used fullblood Lowline bulls on their commercial cows and those calves weighed 500 to 600 pounds at five months of age, she adds. The half-blood Lowline heifers bred back to a Galloway bull had no calving issues and the calves were nearly as big as their mothers by early September.

Prospects for the breed’s future look promising, especially with the shift toward smaller-framed cows and interest in backgrounding and finishing calves on grass, says Lee, who is the association’s general manager.

The breed won’t be able to host a show at Agribition this year, but the national show is running as usual during Farm Fair International at Edmonton.

The association now has members from coast to coast. Find out more about them and Lowlines at the Canadian Lowline Cattle Association website.

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