Longhorns run the range: Gams succeed with unique operationWritten by Saige
Cowley – John Gams was a buyer for Black Hills Pack, and later Midland Pack when he and his wife Sylvia bought their first cows in 1974.
“We started with Hereford and Black Angus in 1974,” says John. “By 1980, we had sold all of those and went strictly to Longhorn cattle.”
With John on the road at cattle sales in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming during the week, Sylvia, who also held down a full-time teaching job, and their children were having a hard time managing the Hereford and Angus herd.
“When we were running Herefords and Angus, we had our land fenced into different pastures and had to rotate them,” explains John. “When we went Longhorn, we just leave the gates open, and they are rarely in the same place.”
Along with the ease of running the land, Sylvia mentions that the Longhorns calve easier and are great mothers.
“We used to have so many calving problems, and John was gone,” says Sylvia. “The kids and I were here alone and it was very difficult.”
With Longhorns, John explains that their cows throw only 60-pound calves, as opposed to 120-pound calves, so the heifers calve easier.
“It cuts down on labor,” says John.
John traveled six days a week as far away as Nebraska and into Idaho to make ends meet.
“It took two jobs to support the cow deal,” says John. “It’s paid off in the long run, though. We’re pretty comfortable now.”
“Longhorns are a niche market,” says Sylvia. “They’re not for everybody, but they works for us. We’ve got our registered buyers and a little feedlot that we sell fat cattle out of.”
The meat from Longhorns is trimmer and more flavorful, explains Sylvia. It also marbles and grades stiffer and lacks the heavy rind of fat around the outer edge of the steaks they produce.
“A lot of people also like the hamburger because its leaner and more flavorful,” says Sylvia.
Once they entered the Longhorn business, John and Sylvia traveled to fairs across the western United States, starting new shows and winning awards for their high-end cattle.
“We got the Longhorn classes at the Wyoming State Fair going and helped start the Longhorn show at the NILE,” says Sylvia.
John adds they also helped start shows in Spokane as well and have also competed in Washington, Oregon and Montana. The couple has the trophies and belt buckles to prove that their cattle are top quality in the Longhorn world.
When they stopped showing cattle in 2004, to pass on the traditions of showing Longhorns the Gams gave one of their good cows to a young girl in Sheridan, who showed the animal and ended up third in the world show.
John looks back to the start of the industry, saying, “The bull Texas Ranger was the one that started the whole industry. Ranger Splash was our first bull and a direct son of Texas Ranger.”
The Gams used Ranger Splash for a number of years, getting calves out of him naturally until after he was 16 years old. When he died in the late ‘80s, they collected and froze semen from him and two years ago artificially inseminated 35 cows back to him.
“We went back to square one,” says John. “We’ve got some yearling heifers now, and they look really good.”
John has noticed, in recent years, that the Texas Longhorn industry has seemingly begun to focus on the head and horns of the animals, rather than their quality for meat.
“They are breeding them for horn and a tremendous head,” says John. “It’s ruining them, really. Most of them are narrow-backed, fine-boned and can’t raise a calf.”
The Gams focus on conformation, rather than the large horn, but can still sell the skulls for a decent price.
The merits of raising Longhorns are numerous, and the Gams are passionate about their animals.
“This works for us,” emphasizes Sylvia. “We really love the Longhorns.”
“Another good thing about these cows its that they are really good mothers. If you see a cow, her calf is nearby,” says John.
“They are a nice disposition breed of cattle,” adds Sylvia. “When the kids were little, we just couldn’t have anything else.”
The Gams run on three separate sections of land, as well as BLM leases, and irrigate nearly 300 acres.
Alongside the Longhorns, John farms hay, grain and corn to feed the herd in the winter. He also still buys cattle for packing houses, but works for himself and is home more frequently to help Sylvia.
This year, John says the land is very productive, due to all the moisture in the spring.
“It’s the best that it has ever been,” says John. “All the reservoirs are full, and the grass looks good.”
“We’ve had some awful dry years recently,” he continues, “but that is when we really benefit from the Longhorns, because they really utilize the country. They travel a lot and are always moving.”
On their BLM land, where they keep the cattle for a large part of the year, there is very little water available. Aside from access to canals on either side of the lease, there are only two reservoirs.
“The Longhorns travel a lot,” says John. “It’s not unnatural for a cow to travel four miles to water like they do here.”
The Longhorns do very well on the rangeland that was previously only used for sheep.
“We have enough land that we run about 160 acres to a cow,” says John. “That’s a lot better than in places like Texas, where you see 16 cows per acre.”
Sylvia adds, “They are in good shape, nice and fat.”
The range they run on is also thick with salt sage, so the Gams provide very little supplemental salt.
“You know, people think we are crazy raising Longhorns,” says Sylvia. “It’s been fun. We’ve had good times and met good people, but our neighbors all think we are crazy.”
“When we first started, Sylvia’s dad was against the Longhorns,” says John. “Then he realized they were utilizing the desert. You have desert land, so you run a desert cow.”