HISTORY OF WILLOW OAK RANCH
from Cattle Today article, Volume 8, Number 7 - December 10, 1994.
Bottom line genetics for profit-minded producers
by: John Purdy
foothills of East Tennessee, in the winding river valley of the
Holston River, approximately 300 Chiangus brood cows are grazing on
native grass pastures. These black, polled functional females are
the production units for Willow Oak Chiangus Ranch. At Willow Oak,
production of Chiangus seedstock is their only business. Since 1982,
this Rogersville, Tenn., ranch has a program of producing reliable
useful genetics for commercial cattlemen. This program focused, from
the beginning, on the development of a hybrid Angus breed called
Chiangus. "The concept was not original with me," says
Richard Arnold, owner of Willow Oak Chiangus Ranch. "This breed
was several important pioneers, but the person most responsible for
our involvement was George Wheeler of Allandale Angus fame."
(Editor note: see Cattle Today, Vol. 7, No. 6 for article on
Willow Oak's original plan was to breed
performance oriented Angus cattle, but back in '82, George Wheeler,
a long-time Angus breeder told Arnold of his dream for a hybrid
Angus breed - to put an end to expensive and herd-mongrelizing
cross-breed programs and keep black polled Angus-type cattle at the
forefront of the modern industrialized cattle industry. Wheeler
suggested that Arnold concentrate his efforts on developing a hybrid
breed of Angus called, Chiangus.
"The cattle are lean meat, high
yielding Angus-type cattle," says Richard Arnold. "Our
goal from the beginning was to develop a new breed of cattle - bred
for today's cattle industry which means production efficiency and
lean meat performance."
The results have been eye opening.
Willow Oak customers have reported impressive results for
Chiangus steers. Through the National Cattlemen's Association's
Strategic Alliances Field Study, Chiangus breeders have been able to
verify by an independent third party (NCA) that, in Arnold's words,
"Chiangus steers are unequaled in bottom line performance and
In the NCA Strategic
Alliances Field Study, two pens of Chiangus steers averaged $161 per
head profit compared to $55 per head on the other 13 pens of
high-quality steers from reputation herds from Western Cattle
Country. These results were duplicated two consecutive years by
Chiangus steers in the Texas A&M Ranch to Rail Program. These
steers in the Strategic Alliances program and the Texas A&M
program come from three different cattle ranches in Nebraska, South
Dakota and Texas. The only thing these operations have in
common are that the steers are Chiangus and each are bull customers
of Willow Oak Chiangus Ranch of Rogersville, Tennessee.
Willow Oak has
successfully marketed performance-tested Chiangus bulls from Texas
to Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and nearer
home throughout the Southeast.
To develop a composite breed, Willow
Oak has taken some of the most impressive performance genetics in
the history of the cattle industry and applied both modern and old
fashion breeders techniques to produce the high-tech cattle called
Chiangus. Here is how - (Excerpt from Cattle Today, article
Volume 11, Number 10 - February 7, 1998)
For other breeders
who would like to understand how Willow Oak accomplished this
consistency, what can you tell us about how this happened?
number one thing is we developed a program based on information
(data) and good cattleman's sense (functional and structural
correctness), used good genetics and didn't fool ourselves. We have
been faithful to our system and honest with ourselves. We started in
1982 to develop lean meat, high grading-high yielding Angus-type
cattle. We accomplished this by using Angus cattle to develop a
hybrid breed. We moved beyond crossbreeding because crossbreeding is
the number one enemy of consistency and predictability. Anyone who
visits our herd or attends our sale, the first thing they observe is
the consistency of the cattle. I mean consistency of appearance,
deep bodied black cattle - consistency of temperament -consistency
of data-high marbling scores, ample ribeye measurement and low fat
cover. This is no accident. We started with genetics that contained
those characteristics and blended them in a live breeding program
that has produced the predictability that we have today.
This all sounds good
but there have bound to have been problems.
course there have been problems. This is the cattle business - but
we have been fortunate. I have had the advice of two outstanding
cattlemen. George Wheeler, a retired Angus breeder who first urged
me to accept the challenge of producing a Hybrid Angus that could
meet the challenges of value based marketing and John Coble of
Billings, Montana, who knows more about the breeding of livestock
than anyone I have ever met or read about. Between these two, we
have been able to keep the ranch and our program headed in the right
direction. The cattle industry has changed in many respects but one
thing that has not changed is the art of breeding cattle. We have
more tools, more information and more data. This presents greater
opportunity but it does not change the fundamentals of breeding
livestock. Consistent quality is obtained by breeding the best to
the best. John Coble's skill has been critical and George Wheeler's
perspective has been important. Together, we have produced this very
important product-hybrid genetics with purebred predictability.
What type of
problems have you encountered in developing your breeding program?
Well, the first problem
that you encounter when you undertake the challenge of developing a
hybrid breed is convincing potential customers that your cattle have
value and that there is a reason to try your bulls. This has been a
long, slow process; but the success of our past sales stand as a
testament to the fact that our cattle do provide real value to our
customers. We have the data to prove it and we have over 200 bulls
in cow herds around the country to confirm the value of our cattle.
This is no longer a problem. Our customers are our best
The second problem we
encountered was a negative impression regarding the temperament of
some Chi x Angus cattle from the steer show days. Many people
believed these cattle to be up-headed and nervous. That is a
problem we have tackled head on. It speaks simply to the proper use
of the breeders art - the use of selection pressure to remove
any potential temperament problems. We have so effectively
eliminated that problem that we have our sale cattle in groups of
three in open pens for inspection on the day before and the day of
our sale. The most common compliment we receive is the soundness of
the cattle's temperament.
This was accomplished
through the use of a temperament rating system. The Willow Oak cow
herd is rated on temperament. Every member of Willow Oak staff
provides a rating but final ratings are set by John Coble.
- Best Temperament
4 - Good
3 - Average
2 - Below
Cows that fit in categories 1, 2 and 3 are long gone
from Willow Oak. Categories 1, 2 and 3 are only used to identify any
weaned calves that fit those categories. There are very few 1 or 2's
in the calf crop any more. At our 2000 sale, the number-one comment
by those in attendance was the docile, easy-going nature of
the Willow Oak cattle. That is the direct result of this temperament
rating system. The temperament rating on the sire and dam of each
bull at the sale is provided for the customers' use.
Generally, the cattle business is local in nature, but
Willow Oak has bull customers in Texas, Montana, North & South
Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri and all of the southeastern states. Back
in the 1980's and early 1990's, we used to hear a lot of criticism
about southeastern cattle being inferior. In 1997, in an attempt to
demonstrate in the west that the myth about southeastern cattle not
being up to western standards was not true, we took a pen of bulls
to the Great Western prestigious Pen of Bulls contest.