Breeding the Perfect Bull- page 1 | People & Places | Smithsonian
On the R.A. Brown Ranch, fifth-generation ranger Donnell Brown can't help thinking about the potential he had created through decades' worth of work. (Karen Kasmauski)

Breeding the Perfect Bull

A Texas cattleman used genetic science to breed his masterpiece – a near-perfect Red Angus bull. Then nature took its course

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There once was a bull, an astonishing bull with a handsome, wide muzzle, stunning scrotal circumference and a square frame solid as a sycamore. He was the son of Cherokee Canyon, the grandson of Make My Day—a noble pedigree. The cowboy who designed him, who chose the semen, selected the dam, prepared and inseminated the uterus, named him Revelation. “We don’t intend to present this bull as divine,” the cowboy, Donnell Brown, would write in his 2005 sale catalog, “but we do count it a blessing to have raised him.” Brown was a salesman by nature, but not given to hyperbole. He believed in his heart that Revelation, at just a year-and-a-half old, could become the most storied bull in the history of the Red Angus breed. Finally, after decades of tinkering: might this be the masterpiece?

Every October, cattle buyers from all over the United States gather near Throckmorton, in north-central Texas, where the R.A. Brown Ranch has been selling breeding cattle for more than a century, and where as many as 800 head will go at auction in a single day. Fathers, sons, grandsons—the ranch has passed through five generations. Donnell Brown, 41, is the current cowboy in charge, and at the 2005 R. A. Brown Ranch Bull & Female Sale he sold Revelation to a Houston businessman with a weekend ranch for $12,000.

In time, the bull could turn out to be worth much more. Top breeding bulls—once they’re proven to produce prime calves—can sell for more than $100,000. In the breeding business, the buyer gets the animal, but the seller typically retains an interest in the genetics. Donnell kept the rights to half of Revelation’s semen. It would be two years before anyone would know the quality of the bull’s progeny.

Donnell wears creased Wranglers, a starched plaid shirt with long sleeves and a white hat with the brim cupped obediently up—not in some floppy, haphazard shape like East Texas cowboys wear. The spurs on his boots bear his initials, but he does not wear jingle bobs on them, those dangling silver baubles you see on flashy Arizona cowboys. No, cowboys in Throckmorton consider themselves West Texas cowboys: starched and ironed, just the way cowboys are supposed to be. Donnell is tall, slim, with a quarterback’s build and the deep blue determined eyes of a man who is hanging on with all his might for the ride. No giving up on the four life goals he set for himself at age 23: get to heaven; be the best possible husband and father; be healthy and happy; produce the most efficient beef cattle in the entire world by converting God’s forage into safe, nutritious, delicious food for His people. He wears a clean, straight mustache above an intelligent smile.

Two years after he sold Revelation, Donnell’s dream came true: the bull’s babies were at the top of the class. The weekend rancher from Houston didn’t quite know what he had, so Donnell called him to explain.

“A superstar,” Donnell told him, pointing out, as he often has to do, that a bull in today’s marketplace is like a player in the NFL draft, except with a longer roster of stats. He told him that Revelation’s progeny were showing beef marbling scores that were off the charts, along with breathtaking rib-eye areas. Producing a bull whose offspring have even one of these super stats is like hitting the lottery. But two? A near miracle.

“You should syndicate Revelation,” Donnell advised, offering to bring the bull back to the R. A. Brown Ranch, where it would enjoy higher visibility, the conditioning of an athlete and Donnell’s help in selling shares to investors. Word spread fast. Donnell and the rancher sold seven shares of Revelation for $1,650 apiece and had 14 more ranchers ready to pony up.

So of course Donnell felt blessed. Of course he was feeling something resembling pride when he went out on a routine cattle call one warm October morning in 2007 and looked around the east holding pasture.

“Come on, bulls!” Donnell cried. He sprinkled sweet grain on the brittle prairie grass, and the bulls gathered like children after the big piñata spill. All of them but one. “Come on, bull! Come on, buddy!” Donnell called to the slacker lying some 20 yards distant. It was Revelation. “Hey!” He went closer, and closer still. “Come on, buddy!”

Revelation lifted its head but otherwise remained as inert as a lump of clay. The bull could not get up. Donnell bent over to find that its right rear leg had been mangled, most likely in a fight with another bull, a battle for turf or just a boyish tussle for fun. Revelation was crippled, and a crippled bull is worthless. A crippled bull produces less and weaker sperm. A crippled bull is sent straight to the packinghouse.

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