In the shadow of a hilltop Benedictine abbey, a great Black Angus herd has been assembled. This may seem incongruous to those who remember Subiaco Abbey's previous cattle herd of questionable pedigree. Butch Geels, who runs the west-central Arkansas Angus operation, can hardly believe it himself.
“We've built something good here in short order,” he said. “And it will get better. We've got a chance to do something worthwhile and special with our animals. It would really make me happy if our herd is one that other cattlemen respect and look at as consistent and excellent.”
Geels, who wears a near-constant smile, was born and raised in nearby Scranton — some 10 miles north of Subiaco, Ark — and never strayed far. He graduated from the abbey's high school for boys, Subiaco Academy, in 1956.
He describes his time at the beautiful school as “enjoyable, but a big study session. And for (the 170 students) up there now I don't think much has changed. One thing I know for sure,” said Geels laughing, “is the brothers don't have any problems with undisciplined kids.”
By 1961, Geels had moved to his new bride's hometown, Ft. Smith, Ark., and was driving a beer truck for distributor David McMahon, a job that proved fortuitous four decades later. Geels held the delivery job only until the mid-1960s before going into the dairy business. But McMahon, who has a registered herd of Angus cattle, didn't forget him.
The abbey, established in 1873 to minister to the surrounding German immigrant community, has always had a herd of mixed-breed commercial cows. By the late 1990s, the herd's performance had slipped.
“There used to be four brothers who took care of the abbey farm. They actually grew some row crops. But this land doesn't have deep soils and isn't suited for that.”
Then the brother who'd taken care of the cattle had a stroke and died in the mid-1990s. Not long after, the aforementioned McMahon — a “generous benefactor” — talked the abbey into trying a registered Angus herd.
“In 1999, McMahon donated three Angus cows — eight-year-old sisters. He talked other Angus ranchers into donating animals too. It turned out donating animals was a good tax writeoff. So the abbey was the beneficiary of some great gifts. These ranchers were truly generous.”
With an Angus herd in the works, McMahon also suggested the abbey hire Geels to oversee the operation.
“It made sense,” said Geels. “This is my alma mater and I'd been in the dairy business and had been to AI (artificial insemination) school. So I came to work here in June 2000.”
Shortly after taking the job, Geels asked McMahon about a bull to breed the cows. The beer distributor took the sisters to Iowa and “flushed” embryos from them. The father, named “GAR Commitment,” is a bull from the renowned Gardner's Angus operation in Kansas.
“His genetics are fantastic,” said Geels. “When he came into the mix, we were really on our way. From that flush, we got 42 calves (22 bulls and 20 heifers) that were all essentially the same blood: same daddy for three full sisters. You should have seen all these Xerox-copy calves running around here — they looked exactly alike, peas in a pod.”
Geels hasn't deviated from the AI breeding pattern since. “Everything we do is AI. We don't have a working bull on the place. We sell our young bulls quickly — probably 150 so far. People call here all the time wanting to buy our bulls.”
The abbey is getting close to its target population of 150 to 170 cows. “We'll probably have to sell quite a few females this coming year. We're in the process of breeding about 150 to 155 cows this round. So far, about 90 cows have been pregnancy checked. Another 54 cows aren't far enough along to check for pregnancy.”
Geels wants the herd to calve in the fall and winter months. “We don't want any calves after March. It just gets hot for these black cows. The calves tend to do best when they're born in September or October.”
It's important that someone in the abbey knows what the Angus program is doing and trying to achieve, said Geels. That's a role Brother Tobias and Father David, both abbey monks, fill.
“They work with the animals, and we're of a like mind,” said Geels of the pair. “We study genetics and see the same things.”
Genetics, said Father David, is what drew him to the herd. “Even when I was a little kid I was curious why a red sow could have black piglets. The seeming randomness of heredity intrigued me. It's just something I have a passion for and I can express it with this herd.”
Producing calves through AI isn't a job for the unobservant. Father David said Geels works the herd from “daylight to dark, and that's what's needed.”
“I watch the cows closely because timing is critical. We start a series of shots about a week before a cow comes into heat,” said Geels. “These shots create a super-ovulating cow. Once that's achieved, the cow is given a shot to cause the eggs to be released.”
When a worthy cow comes into standing heat, she is artificially inseminated at 12-hour intervals at least twice. The released eggs, hopefully fertilized at that point, are left to develop for a week. Then, using a saline solution, the eggs are flushed from the cow's womb, collected and then sorted under a microscope.
At the same time, Geels will have prepared surrogate mothers for the fertilized eggs. The surrogates receive a set of shots to insure they are ready for impregnation. If an egg is successfully implanted, the surrogate will carry the calf to delivery.
Subiaco Abbey's farm office holds a large desk stacked high with Black Angus performance literature. Father David and Geels sift through the journals like old pros, debating bulls and their potential genetic effects on the abbey's herd.
“What I've found is you must have a disciplined approach,” said Father David. “You have to stick with what you know works. We have a rancher friend near here who practices what Butch and I call dial-a-bull. Every month, he's got a different bull he's enamored with. He's always trying to hit a homerun using a short-cut. We take the steady-but-sure approach instead.”
Geels scours the numbers for bulls that produce low birth-weight calves with high growth rates and prime ultrasound measurements, a relatively new practice in the business.
“Ultrasound helped us immeasurably,” said Geels. “When we started this registered herd, live ultrasound had just begun. We caught that wave four years ago and haven't looked back.”
Within a month or so of a calf's first birthday, the abbey has it scanned with ultrasound. With the ultrasound machine set up pen-side, measurements are taken of the animal's ribeye size and how much rib and rump fat it has.
“You don't want a bunch of fat on the back — that's one of the reasons you've got to be very picky about what bull you use,” said Father David. “From those measurements, how the calf will look as an adult is extrapolated.”
Early ultrasound is one reason the abbey's young bulls are sold so quickly. “There's no mystery. The buyers know what they're getting,” said Geels.
The ultrasound can't be rigged. “We're the fourth entity that finds out what we've got,” said Father David. “You can't cook the books because the results aren't given to us, they're sent to Iowa State University. The readings are interpreted there and then sent to the Black Angus Association. There, the results are recorded and then finally sent to us.”
Before calves were put under ultrasound, evaluating a bull properly was much more difficult. Enough of his progeny had to have their carcasses graded to come up with solid numbers.
“So it would be a while before you found out if a bull was really good,” said Geels. “That was much more hit-and-miss. Now, comparatively, proving a bull takes no time at all.”
The abbey has about 500 acres open for hay and pasture. Since he arrived, Geels has overseen cleaning and sowing six hay meadows. Last year, the abbey baled 2,745 round bales and sold about 1,000 bales of bermuda hay.
One problem: too much fescue in the pastures. “That caused us some trouble early on. Black cows and fescue don't mix. Fescue has an endophyte that causes the blood vessels in the cows to shrink. That slows circulation and, in the summer, makes it even hotter on them. So we've been cleaning the fescue out of the pastures and switching over to bermuda. That's been a constant battle.”
Geels credits the Arkansas Extension Service for helping with pasture improvement and weed control. “They deserve much credit for that.”
The abbey hit a milestone in late January when it sold its first females: a cow/calf pair and two bred heifers. “The pair brought $5,000 and the two heifers brought $8,250 and $9,000” said Geels. “We were so happy and surprised with those prices. I thought the heifers would bring between $4,000 and $5,000. Trying to get our name out even more, we turned around and sold two cow/calf pairs in March. One brought $6,500 and the other $7,600. We're producing quality animals now.”
Does the herd provide meat for the abbey? “I wish!” chuckles Father David. “But they're way too valuable for that. Any profits we make from the herd support the monastery and ministry.”