Beef Goes Modern
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Genetics

As early as the 1870s, ranchers knew that genetics were important. As their markets changed, they needed to produce cattle that in turn produced the quality of beef that their consumers wanted.
From extra footage from the 2008 NET Television production, Beef State

In the very first issue of Nebraska Farmer, published in January 1877, there were two articles on the importance of breeding. One, entitled "Galloway Cattle", praised the breed for its size, endurance, and traits, making it well suited to Nebraska. Another, "Law of Breeding", published an address given by Professor James Law of Cornell University, the nation’s leading agricultural institution of higher learning. It lists ten points for upbreeding your herd, including the selection of breeding stock and a caution against inbreeding.
Read more about it:
The Nebraska Farmer: Galloway Cattle


Two articles in The Nebraska Farmer’s first edition, January 1877
.
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society
Prize-winning bull
Prize-winning bull.
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, RG1085-04-08

Through the 19th and into the 20th century, herds grew and improved. You only need look at the animals displayed at fairs and stock shows to see both the success in breeding and the pride of the breeders.

However, continuing to improve the quality of a herd was a little more difficult. Good bulls were both expensive and big, and they had to be where your cows were to produce calves. Expanding genetic diversity and sharpening breed lines was a slow process. It took a lot of shipping prize bulls back and forth.

Mag Me! Select the magnifying glass
for an extreme close-up.

Advertisement excerpt: Cattle Sale for the By The Way Ranch, owned by future Nebraska Governor Sam McKelvie, 1949
.
Courtesy The Nebraska Cattleman

That problem found technological solutions. Though experimentation and development had been going on in Russia and Denmark since the late 19th century, beginning in the 1930s, American ranchers began using artificial insemination to improve their herd genetics. But it wasn’t until the early 1940s that refrigeration methods were discovered that allowed semen to be frozen, extended, and stored for use where and when breeders needed it.

Rancher/Governor Sam McKelvie & Hereford calf
Rancher/Governor Sam McKelvie & Hereford calf.
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, RG2229-13-SFN90939
This technology meant that the fine bulls produced on Nebraska prairies could sire calves with cows in Montana, Texas, and California.

As early as 1933, rancher Essie Davis was one of those ranchers who began building better cattle bloodlines. By doing so, she stepped even deeper into the world of men. Once, former Nebraska Governor Sam McKelvie and Essie Davis stood bidding toe to toe on a particular Hereford bull. When Davis refused to quit, McKelvie exclaimed, "Who in h--l is that woman who thinks she can outbid me!" McKelvie’s neighbor turned to him and replied, "That’s Essie Davis and she CAN!"
In addition to improving bloodlines, Essie Davis advanced the cattle’s general wellbeing. She took range management seriously and introduced a variety of grass types to improve the quality of the rangeland. She bragged that her pastures contained seventy varieties of grasses. In addition to the grasses, Essie and her son Thane, who became her ranching partner upon his graduation from the University, planted 250,000 trees. She called them "outdoor barns". Essie Davis and son Thane with their 1948 plane
Essie Davis and her son Thane with plane they purchased in 1948.
Courtesy the Davis family through the Nebraska State Historical Society

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