by Steve Wilson • Photography by Andy Sams
When Debbie Davis turned 30 in 1992, her husband, Don, bought her a pair of longhorn heifers. “Kind of for giggles,” she says. “I’d been talking about having longhorns as pets.” At the time, Don worked in Austin as an architect and Debbie at jobs that sometimes drew on her fine arts graduate degree, but the heifers weren’t just the whim of city slickers looking for a weekend hobby. Don’s family owned two ranches outside Austin, and the couple soon bought their own in Tarpley, Texas. And as their longhorn herd slowly grew, so did the couple’s commitment to the iconic Texas animal—especially to its future.
Debbie and Don admired how the tough and lean longhorns—descended from the same hearty stock that survived cattle drives in the 1800s—were rarely sick, didn’t need much water and had no trouble making babies or birthing them. They feared these distinct traits might get flushed away forever by other ranchers who’d begun crossbreeding longhorns to produce bigger bodies and horns. “They make these ‘wrong-horns’ just to brag about their horn size at competitions,” says Don. Longhorns may be the official large mammal of Texas, and they may move a lot of collegiate merchandise, but Don and Debbie saw them in peril. They decided to rescue what they call “full-blood” longhorns by…turning them into hamburgers?
The Davises set up Bandera Grassland in 2003 to help shine a light on longhorn meat and make the animal a desirable one to breed. “We needed to make a market for longhorns so that people would want to raise them,” says Debbie. People started getting hip to the grassfed cattle movement around this time, but Don and Debbie were already way ahead of the curve. They’d long since cut grains, hormones and antibiotics from their herd’s diet, as well as chemicals from their soil. And shortly thereafter, they gave up on selling their meat to the conventional feedlot markets and instead began marketing their USDA-approved processed meat directly to customers. “We decided to commit ourselves to growing the best animals in the best environment,” says Debbie.
Austin establishments such as Hudson’s on the Bend, Kerbey Lane Cafe, Hut’s Hamburgers and Wheatsville Food Co-op liked the approach, and their customers apparently liked the taste, because they began asking for more. Don eventually quit architecture to handle Bandera sales and he launched the Grassfed Longhorn Alliance to advocate for fellow small-scale, independent longhorn ranchers. (The couple also formed the Cattlemen’s Texas Longhorn Conservancy in 2005.)
By 2006, the couple had 300 longhorns and a herd of sheep on 10,000 acres that they either owned or leased. It sounds impressive—until you factor in gas, feed cost and lease fees. “We were killing ourselves,” says Debbie. “And when we put a pencil to it, we realized it wasn’t worth it.” They scaled down Bandera Grassland’s client list to include only Hut’s Hamburgers and individual consumers. Meanwhile, Don turned the Grassfed Longhorn Alliance into the Grassfed Livestock Alliance (GLA)—a collective of like-minded ranchers in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas who meet the standards of the American Grassfed Association. Don says that some larger ranchers and meat producers put “grassfed” on their labels without backing up the claim. “A lot of people say they do grassfed, but we prove it,” says Don. The collective also meets the Global Animal Partnership requirements of Whole Foods Market, which carries its meat in nearly every store in four southwestern states, save for the Austin stores which carry an organic beef from California. Don and the GLA worked out an innovative deal in which the grocery chain buys the whole carcass instead of the pieces—a huge boon to small ranchers who’d otherwise have to spend their entire weekends at farmers markets just to sell some chuck. “If I sold you a tomato, you wouldn’t buy the middle and leave me with the top and bottom,” Don jokes.
Teaming up with a huge customer like Whole Foods Market has helped the couple and other GLA members weather Texas’ devastating drought. Since much of Don and Debbie’s lovingly tended pastureland has sizzled up, they’ve gone through the painful process of destocking their longhorn herd down to 40 on their ranch in Tarpley. That’s also meant no more sheep, but at least the couple had the option of moving them to another GLA ranch. “They’re still in the family,” Debbie says.
No matter how much of the grass may shrivel, the Davises are committed to keeping it at the top of the menu for the herd. Not only is grass-feeding the right way to raise a longhorn, they say, it also makes for better meat. “I’m sure the big boys wanted to make us go away,” says Don. “We didn’t. Now we’ve gotten everybody’s attention.”