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It only takes a minute of talking with W.R. Baker to get crystal clear on the qualities he values in a cow herd. It's not the sort of thing you'd hear from the average cattleman.
"I'm raising horns, not pounds," the Texan said. "We need a good horn base and an animal that is good for roping. That's what we're selling, and that's what we've been selling for 20 years."
Baker, based in Livingston, said he started off on the pound side of the beef business with Brangus and Braford cows. But he was a roper, and he decided to import some Mexican cattle -- a type, or class, commonly known as "corriente." It was a well-made match.
Corrientes are hearty, docile and don't eat as much grass as the average cow. Cows weigh, at most, 800 pounds. Their highest value is as ropers, or rodeo cattle. In a way, corrientes have two lives. Their first use, as ropers, usually brings in the bulk of their value. Their second use varies, ranging from replacement heifers, herd bulls or, at the lower end, feeders and sale-barn cattle.
While Baker said he's raising horns, he's not overlooking a critical part of what maximizes the value of Corrientes -- they must be good rodeo cattle. Good ropers are trained, not just flung out into an arena.
"It is very important that someone who knows how to train them works with these calves," Baker explained. "Ropers are broken in. You want them to run straight and go down fluid. You teach them to get up and go to the stripping chute, where the ropes come off. It's critical you train them, or you will wreck them pretty quick."
Baker's calves are weaned at 6 to 8 months of age. The roping phase of these calves' careers starts around 12 months of age for steers, 15 months of age for heifers.
Prices for these scrappy little cattle are at an all-time high. Baker said selling them as ropers will bring $650 a head now. That is a big improvement over the average price he's seen for the last 20 years, about $450 per head. If he leases roping cattle to an individual, they bring $35 per head per month, plus a charge for the number of times the animal will be used. There are penalties if the cattle aren't well cared for.
Most of Baker's cattle are either sold or used in his own roping events. He has an arena on-site and holds about 15 events a year. Participants bring their own horses and compete, roping in different divisions. Between Baker's roping events and those of another company in the area, these cattle are used in about 30 contests during the course of a year.
"If you take good care of these calves, you can use them two years. But for many, you'll just get one year," Baker said.
The producer holds back any young males he thinks will be good bulls. He said many cattlemen used to cross the border into Mexico to buy corriente bulls, but it's gotten harder thanks in part to bovine tuberculosis scares. Here in the U.S., the overall population of corrientes has decreased, creating the shortage and the higher prices. That has been good for cattlemen like Baker.