A new kind of cowboy in Kansas

VIDEO: A 21st century cowboy

There’s a new kind of cowboy: the business cowboy. The business cowboy is driven more by the bottom line than by his pride. He’s as good with a calculator or chatting up a customer as he is at changing horseshoes. And he’s quicker to draw a cellph
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There’s a new kind of cowboy: the business cowboy. The business cowboy is driven more by the bottom line than by his pride. He’s as good with a calculator or chatting up a customer as he is at changing horseshoes. And he’s quicker to draw a cellph

Saturday is “National Day of the Cowboy,” but there isn’t just one type of cowboy to celebrate anymore.

There are rodeo cowboys who know as much about athletics as animal husbandry. There are factory cowboys who put on the boots to pack cows into the pens of mass slaughtering plants. And, yes, there are cowboys who ride horses on wide swaths of land, moving cattle from point A to B before the sun sets.

Now there’s a new kind of cowboy: the business cowboy. The business cowboy is driven more by the bottom line than by his pride. He’s as good with a calculator or chatting up a customer as he is at changing horseshoes. And he’s quicker to draw a cellphone than a lasso.

But the business cowboy still believes in old-fashioned cowboy values and skills that come from spending hundreds of hours with his herd.

John Irvine, 43, one of the new cowboys, was checking up on a group of about 50 cows on his family’s ranch and pastureland on the outskirts of Manhattan on Tuesday morning.

As he walked among his cows, scattering feed, one of them became skittish and hid behind the others. That cow will not carry its own calf this year, Irvine said, but instead will be injected with the fertilized embryo of one of the ranch’s best cattle. That’s how he eliminates undesirable traits such as skittishness.

Irvine has a big smile on his face as he walks among his cows these days. This year’s huge rain crop has meant the ranch can save money on irrigation. It also means that the pasture land is so lush his cows won’t even be able to eat it all. The past few years were unusually dry, and many ranches had to sell off as much as half their herds, he said. So now there are fewer cows on the market and the price of beef is soaring.

“The cattle market is the best it’s ever been in my lifetime,” Irvine said.

Irvine’s ranch has been ranked in the top five in the country for the monetary value of the Simmental breed of cattle it sells, according to the American Simmental Association. Although sometimes Irvine says he’s not in the cow business at all — sometimes he calls it the genetics business with a slogan of “profit through science.”

“Hey girls, hey girls, hey girls,” Irvine calls out as he scatters feed in the grass. His cows hurry over to eat as much “cow candy,” as they can. The feed is less about nutrition than it is about conditioning them to come on command, much like a puppy trainer with a biscuit.

Irvine breeds for quality over quantity. So while it’s unlikely that the average cut of Kansas beef has come straight from his ranch – it could contain beef from one of his ranch’s offspring. The ranch has sold bulls and cows in over 30 states and, as its website states, the ranch “retains a 1/2 semen interest in all bulls,” so it keeps profiting even generations after animals have been sold.

Irvine doesn’t need a tag to identify his cows. He recognizes them by their faces, and often times just by an ear, a hoof or a tail.

But when he looks at his cattle, he sees a bunch of numbers. He can pull up 16 statistics about each one he owns on his phone, as if he’s looking at a baseball card: birth weight, ease of calving, back fat, muscle marbling and, for his bulls, “adjusted scrotal circumference.” The biggest cause of his ranch’s recent success, Irvine said, is the relatively new ability to measure these production and personality traits and estimate the likelihood they will be passed on to their calves.

The American Simmental Association takes the measurements for each trait and gives each cow or bull an overall score, which corresponds to exactly how much money it would expect each cow’s offspring to command. So a cow with a score of 150 will conceive calves that make on average $50 more per calf than a cow with a score of 100.

When Irvine looks at S933, he sees beauty. In addition to her measurement – “0.42 for marbling, in the top three percent” and her “0.93 for rib-eye, the top three percent” – her muscle rides high on her back, rather than sagging beneath her. So Irvine knows she’ll produce expensive rib-eyes. Her hooves are well-formed, so she won’t give way over time. And perhaps most importantly, she has great “calf-bearing hips,” Irvine said.

But some features of a cow still aren’t measured, such as hoof quality. So there is no perfect formula that tells Irvine exactly which cows to keep, which to sell, and which to turn into the next S933 embryo donor.

Irvine likes being outside in the grass with his animals. But as much as he loves the work, he knows from a business standpoint, the less of it he has to do, the better. In the last few years they’ve been so “efficient” at breeding mothers, he hasn’t had to help a single cow deliver its calf. His customers don’t want to buy cows that can’t give birth on their own.

Although Irvine grew up riding horses, now he only saddles up if he needs to get to a steep, wooded area. His truck and motorized cart take him most places, and the cows often know where to go. The previous day, when he and his son moved the cows to a new pasture, half of the cows were already waiting for them at the gate and the rest of them came when he honked.

“I probably spend half my time in the office,” Irvine said. “I think that’s maybe the change of the modern day cowboy, there is a lot more to do in the office.”

His love-affair with cattle started early on some of the same pastureland his family has been using for more than 100 years. When Irvine was 3 years old, his dad Paul would chuck flakes of hay from the back of his truck and let Irvine hold the steering wheel. “From that time on, I’ve always been at dad’s side, more or less, helping out,” Irvine said.

As a teenager he and his brother traveled across the country to competitions to learn about the cow business. In addition to showing off family cows, the young cowboys also competed in public speaking, “Sales Talk,” and took a 50-question test with questions such as which part of the hoof carries the most weight, which company sells the most cattle and what kind of cows will make them the most money.

Now Irvine takes his oldest children out with him on the ranch whenever it’s safe and he’s not in a hurry. He wants his four kids to grow up on a farm and learn a strong work ethic, like he did. So he and his wife moved into a house this year next to their pastureland. His oldest, nine-year-old Anna, “gets upset if I don’t wake her up and take her with us.”

Although Irvine’s five siblings have other jobs – realtor, lawyer, human resource manager, etc. – they pitch in to help with the ranch’s big money-making auction in November. The ranch isn’t the family’s sole source of income. His family has a second, shared real-estate business in addition to the ranch, and he is able to send his children to private schools.

“Everybody is taken care of,” Irvine said.

But the cowboy values have not disappeared. He frequently quotes advice his father told him: “Take half and leave half” or “family, farming, faith.” Irvine said he still closes deals with a handshake.

But the tough, silent cowboy-type sometimes gets in the way of good business. Irvine wants to know if any of his cattle have caused customers problems because he wants them to return and buy more. But unless he calls and coaxes the information out, he would never hear about the cows’ problems, which is rare.

The Irvine Ranch has more genetic and behavioral control than ever, but it’s not perfect.

A neighbor’s bull broke into their pasture last year and impregnated the heifers. A lightning storm killed four cows a few years back and his family mourned as if they had lost four members of the family.

“Sometimes bad things can happen but that’s life, and we learn from those things and grow. I’ve heard Dad say it all my life,” Irvine said. “The Lord was with us.”

Reach Oliver Morrison at 316-268-6499 or Follow him on Twitter: @ORMorrison.