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Serving: IA

Corriente cattle: A unique breed

Slideshow: North America’s oldest cattle breed offers low inputs and higher profits from grazing.

Cattle producers Rick Schlutz and son Marshal don’t grow any corn on their 430-acre farm near Russell in southern Iowa. That’s because the Corriente cattle they’ve raised for the past 20 years don’t convert corn well.

“We tried feeding them corn, and it didn’t work,” Rick says. “These cattle need time and grass, not corn, to produce naturally lean, tender meat. They won’t be standing in a feedlot to put fat on; they’ll be out on pasture, even in winter, eating grass or unrolled hay.”

He adds, “We learned by accident, that these grass-fed cattle produce their best tasting meat 3 to 4 years old. It’s a common misconception that meat can’t be tender in 3- and 4-year-old cows or steers. We’ve butchered at 17 years old, and the meat from these Corriente cattle is still tender, tasty meat.”

The Schlutzes were team ropers when Marshal returned to the farm after college. “Marshal attended Oklahoma Panhandle State University on a rodeo scholarship, traveling the country,” Rick says. “When he graduated and came home, we bought a few Corriente cows to raise our own practice calves for roping.

“He and his wife, Julie, and my wife, Kathy, and I started selling and leasing the calves to folks from southeast Kansas, almost to Minnesota, and across Iowa, and before long we didn’t have time to rope anymore.”

Cattle leased for rodeos
They’ve built their herd at the family’s Yoke S Ranch to more than 100 cows, with an additional 150 head of competition cattle, including 75 head they lease to team ropers across the Midwest for six months at a time.

“When the cattle come back from those leases, they go to Mexican rodeos, called charreada, in Iowa for tailing competitions,” Rick says. “Tailing is similar to steer wrestling, but in tailing you grab the tail to upset the calf. The Spanish conquistadors brought this breed to North America in 1493, and back in the old days, Mexicans caught cattle that way to doctor them.”

Schlutz says the Corriente cattle are athletes; it isn’t until they have completed the competitions that they butcher the cattle, at 800 to 900 pounds, the full size of the cows. Since these cattle don’t process corn well, all they get fed ahead of butchering is a pound a day of soybean hulls and dried distillers grain.

Beef low in cholesterol
“Corriente beef is 92% lean and low in cholesterol,” Rick says. “I was diagnosed with diabetes in 2013, and my LDL [low-density lipoprotein, often called the bad cholesterol] was 207. My doctor wanted to put me on cholesterol-reducing medicine, but I wanted to try eating this meat exclusively instead. That’s what I did, and a year later my LDL was 107. Now, it’s indistinguishable.

“I thought it might just be working for me, but I’ve talked to others on the North American Corriente board of directors and learned that one member’s doctor tried what I tried, and brought his cholesterol down, too. It’s remarkable, really.”

The Yoke S Ranch butchers about 24 head a year, selling it through the Iowa Food Cooperative, to distributors and individuals, and to some HyVee stores as a health food. Retail price for hamburger is about $6 a pound. They deliver to homes as far away as Des Moines, with regular and return customers.

“Some people like it; some don’t. You have to cook it a little differently; you can’t overcook it,” Rick says. What they don’t butcher, they sell on the hoof.

Graze cattle like goats
Other than supplemental range cubes in the last part of pregnancy, cows feed only on a diverse mix of bromegrass, fescue, red clover, white clover, orchardgrass and weeds.

“We don’t mind weeds,” Rick says. “These cattle graze like goats. They’ll kill red cedar trees, eat multiflora rose bushes and stand on their hind legs to eat the leaves off locust trees, but they don’t like straight alfalfa.”

The cattle are rotated on 250 acres of pasture, through four paddocks separated by high-tensile electric fence. The Schlutzes move salt and minerals with the cows and have multiple ponds on the farm that ensure a water source in every paddock.

“You can’t drive these cattle; you teach them to go where you want them,” Rick says. “They stay in a paddock for eight to 10 days; then they’re ready to move themselves to a fresh one. Our first calf, a steer we kept for 18 years and named Wilbur, would lead yearlings to water or feed. He knew the routine. These cattle teach us low-stress cattle handling; one of us is with them almost daily.”

Don’t get too close
The cows do fight. “I’ve never seen them hurt each other badly, but they’re athletes, and they fight viciously. It’s loud, violent and fast. You don’t want to be close to them when they fight,” Rick says. Still, he isn’t afraid to work with them.

“I’d rather get into a pen to sort these Corriente than a herd of unknown Angus cows,” Rick says. “But their horns can be dangerous, and you do need to watch yourself; don’t get too close. Marshal and I have both been life-flighted to Des Moines hospitals after being gored.

“Marshal’s incident happened one day as a bucket-raised bull was standing near us, as we were drawing up plans. Marshall tapped him on the nose to move him away. He got mad and charged Marshal, threw him in the air twice, and rolled him on the ground, breaking his ankle. It all happened in about 10 seconds. The bull just stood there quivering afterward. I told Marshal not to move, and the bull relaxed and walked away.”

Rick’s experience was five years ago with a 3-year-old heifer that had just come back from a Mexican rodeo with a broken tail.

“We were in a 50-foot-by-50-foot pen. I knew she was fixin’ to get someone. She zeroed in on me and charged,” Rick says. “I tried to climb the fence and got as high as the third bar. But she jumped up after me and stuck a horn in right below my belt to pick me off the fence. I remember I could hardly breathe, and I pushed to get off the horn. She knicked my lower intestine, and they had to open me up.”

Easy calving, a hearty breed
One of only a handful of Corriente cattle producers in Iowa, the Yoke S Ranch runs one of the largest herds of this breed in the state.

“We’ve calved more than 1,000 calves and never pulled a calf,” Rick says. “The calves are only 25 pounds when they’re born, and we just don’t have a problem with birthing ease. We don’t doctor them much either; we get them in one time a year for a lepto-vibrio shot. They’re not immune to any disease, but they’re resistant to about every disease.”

Schlutz says his biggest concern is the susceptibility of these cattle to pneumonia in a northern climate, so he keeps a close eye on them for that reason. The low amount of inputs is what makes these cattle more profitable than the more common breeds, he believes. “If I couldn’t have Corriente cows, I wouldn’t have cows at all,” he says.

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