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

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)
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To create the finest steaks, there really is nothing as important as a fabulous cow. Except, of course, an amazing bull. 

On the day he found Revelation crippled in the east holding pasture, Donnell stood there feeling sick. Gut-sick, like a man watching his house burn down. In the silver liquid-nitrogen tank up in the ranch’s artificial insemination center, he had only about 100 “straws,” or doses, of Revelation’s semen—hardly a gold mine.

He took his cellphone off his belt clip and called his wife, Kelli, back at headquarters.

“Oh, Donnell,” Kelli said, desolated. She told Betsy, Donnell’s sister, who works in the office, too, and soon word passed around the family.

All three of Donnell’s siblings, and their spouses, share ownership of the ranch with him and Kelli. She serves as marketing maven and quiet, sturdy voice of wisdom—and as president of the Red Angus Association of America. Ranch headquarters is the small red house where Donnell grew up and now lives with Kelli and their two teenage boys, Tucker and Lanham.

In the end, Donnell decided no, he would not give up on Revelation. He would try to save his masterpiece. So he hauled the bull away in a trailer and drove five hours to a veterinary hospital near Austin, where he learned that Revelation had torn two ligaments, the anterior cruciate and medial collateral, in its right rear knee. “Nothing we can do for him here,” the vet said, pointing Donnell to specialists at Kansas State University, 11 hours away. So Donnell got in the truck and drove. Revelation was like Barbaro, the racehorse. If ever there was an animal worth going the extra mile for, it was Revelation.

“We can try to construct a new knee,” the Kansas vet said, with only vague encouragement in his voice. “Sure, we can try.”

Donnell’s parents, Rob and Peggy, used to live in the red ranch house, but in 1998 they retired to the fancy house in town with the big columns out front, just as Rob’s parents had done before them. Before she married Rob, Peggy’s name was Peggy Donnell, and that’s how Donnell got his name.

Rob, now 74, is himself legendary in the beef world; he played a vital role in determining the kind of steak America now eats. He came of age when the Hereford was the cattle of choice for the U.S. beef industry—a reliable, thrifty breed with far more muscle than the Texas Longhorn, its predecessor as America’s main beef cow.

At Texas Tech, Rob had learned of a brave new world. “Continental breeds!” he said to his father, R. A., after he came home with his degree in agriculture in 1958. Breed a Hereford with, say, a Brown Swiss and get a larger carcass with, perhaps, the same quality meat—or better! Rob had other ideas, other breeds, other dreams. R.A., a man of tradition, would have none of it. Not until 1965 did he give Rob his reluctant blessing to crossbreed; within days, he died of a heart attack. If he hadn’t given his assent, the ranch never would have enjoyed its explosive success in creating better and better meat.


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