For most seedstock producers, making a name for yourself in one breed is difficult enough. Most would never consider trying it with two breeds.
But, Carlton and Nancy Laxton aren't your typical seedstock producers.
Their Cherokee Hills Farm, located in the rolling hills on the Tennessee-Kentucky border adjacent to Kentucky Lake, has been synonymous with quality Beefmaster genetics for almost 15 years.
More recently, the Laxtons have ventured into the Romagnola business with that same determination and enthusiasm that has made them successful in their Beefmaster operation. Without question, at Cherokee Hills, as their motto says, “beef” is definitely their business.
Oddly enough, in the beginning, Carlton and Nancy had no intention of getting into the cattle business. As a matter of fact, Carlton purchased the small, initial piece of property for bird hunting.
“Carlton came in one day and told me he had bought a farm with 20 head of cattle on it,” Nancy remembers. “I thought he was joking! Then he told me he had promised the guy he bought them from that we would keep them a year…all of the sudden we were in the cattle business.”
When the Laxtons began looking for a bull to put on their newly purchased “herd,” they decided on Beefmasters. Nancy had become familiar with Beefmaster cattle while working on her animal science degree at Mississippi State University. As a pharmaceutical representative (human line), she also called on Dr. Lowell Stonecipher, owner of Cottage Farms Beefmasters in Jackson, Tenn.
“I called up Dr. Stonecipher while I was on the road and told him we needed a bull,” Nancy laughs. “I told him if we were going to have to keep these cows, I wanted a good bull that would give us some good calves.”
From that first purchase, the Laxton's herd began to grow as they became more interested in the seedstock business. They purchased two donor cows from Cottage Farms and began using their initial “herd” as recipients. But it was a fateful visit to Chanarock Farms in Bowling Green, Ky. that propelled the Laxton's to the forefront of the Beefmaster breed. That day they purchased a 6-month-old paint bull calf that would change their herd and the Beefmaster breed. The Laxton's named him Cherokee Phantom, USA and today the Cherokee genetics are some of the most popular in the breed.
Fast forward a few years to 1994 when the Laxtons were in Reno, Nevada attending a Beefmaster sale. There was a Romagnola sale going on at the same time and the Laxtons were curious about these cattle. After visiting with Romagnola breeders and looking at the cattle, they were so impressed they bought a few lots to take back home.
“Right off the bat they impressed us coming off the truck,” Carlton and Nancy said. “They made that long trip without any problems and held up great. One cow had a calf on the semi and the calf was up and running around before the truck got to the ranch!”
Today, the Cherokee Hills Romagnola herd numbers close to 200 head, and the Laxtons have continued to be amazed at the performance, consistency and carcass quality of the cattle.
They have been so impressed with the cattle that they have traveled across the United States and as far as Italy and Australia, learning more about the cattle, their origins and their potential.
Romagnola are an ancient breed of cattle originating in Italy, that go back at least 2000 years. In the beginning, Romagnola cattle were used primarily for draft purposes, but in the 1800's breeders began selecting for traits that have elevated them to a superior breed for both meat and leather. It wasn't until 1972 that the first Romagnola cattle were imported in the United States.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Romagnola cattle is their unique carcass characteristics. Due to the small fiber and refined texture, the meat from a Romagnola carcass is lean, tender and flavorful. Marbling is finely flecked and dispersed throughout the muscle.
“Romagnola beef is very different than most other domestic breeds in that the muscle fiber diameter is smaller, and because the volume of muscle they possess, Romagnola bulls will increase ribeye area on almost any cross,” the Laxtons explain. “As far as backfat and marbling are concerned, it's not uncommon for Romagnola cattle to have .2 inches of backfat or less and still have enough marbling to grade Choice. Romagnola marbling is dispersed across the entire ribeye in very fine flecks, as opposed to some other breeds where you can get large deposits of fat.”
The Laxton's claims come from first-hand knowledge of the carcasses. As they have continued to build their Romagnola herd, they have also compiled carcass data on their own Romagnola and Romagnola cross cattle to share with their customers.
One such example is a two-year-old fullblood bull who injured his leg. The Laxtons decided to slaughter him to see a Romagnola carcass for themselves. The carcass hung for fourteen days, and according to the Laxtons was so tender it would cut easily with a fork.
“It was the leanest, most flavorful and tender meat we had ever tasted…,” say the Laxtons. After cooking a roast and letting it sit overnight in the refrigerator, the next day there were only traces of fat on top of the broth….We were amazed the meat could be so tender from an aged bull. Since then we have reproduced what we found over and over again.”
The Laxtons have also found the same results on Romagnola cross cattle that they have produced. One such example is a Romagnola-sired steer out of a ¾ Holstein, ¼ Angus cow who the Laxtons named Darth Vader. Darth Vader won the Henry County (Paris, Tenn.) bred and owned steer show and made a lasting impression on the Laxtons. At twelve months, he weighed 1,070 pounds, had a ribeye area of 14.7 square inches, backfat of .26 inches, REA/cwt. of 1.28 and graded high Choice.
“If that's done on a high percentage Holstein cow, what would you expect on a good set of commercial cows?” Nancy says.
Another trait that has impressed Carlton and Nancy is the Romagnola cattle's ability to thrive in extreme conditions, both hot and cold. Never has that been more evident as this summer of 1999 where drought conditions have left the usual green, rolling hills of the farm brown and burned, with very little grass for grazing. Despite these conditions, the Romagnola cattle are still thriving and sustaining themselves on the minimal amount of forage available.
“Without a doubt, these cattle are extremely hardy and efficient foragers,” the Laxtons say. “We have seen that first-hand this summer!”
Without question, the Romagnola cattle have proven their value to the Laxtons over and over again. Now they are working hard to spread the message. In the last two years they have sold over 80 fullblood Romagnola bulls to mostly commercial cattleman. According to Carlton and Nancy, they have been extremely pleased with the positive feedback that they have received from their customers.
“Many of our customers have called us when their first calves hit the ground to tell us about the small birth weights, the active calves, the fast gains in muscle on the calves and about the great breeding performance of the bulls in general,” the Laxtons report. “They tell us how impressed they are that the bulls are holding up in their breeding programs, and tell us about those bulls out in their pastures, grazing in the hot sun, breeding the cows and maintaining their weight.”
For the Laxtons, this is the ultimate and most important testimony.
“For the commercial man, one of the most important things is a consistent calf crop,” Carlton says. “The calves should be better than their mommas…if not, you better look a little harder for a herd bull. Without a doubt, Romagnola bulls will put consistency in their calves and improve carcasses tremendously. Using Romagnola bulls is a win-win opportunity for the commercial cattleman.”
That is one of the main reasons that the Laxtons continue to build their Romagnola herd and promote the breed across the Southeast and the United States. The Laxtons have been pleased with the interest in the cattle and hope to continue to share their success with other breeders.
One such convert is their own veterinarian, Dr Chuck Lyons from Paris, Tenn. Strictly a commercial breeder, Lyons says he never even considered the purebred business until he was introduced to Romagnolas working for the Laxtons.
“I never thought I would be interested in a purebred situation,” Dr. Lyons says, “but when we got our first cross calves I was so impressed with the consistency, small birth weights, and rapid growth, I began to think about raising my own bulls….Before I knew it, I was in the registered Romagnola seedstock business!”
It is success stories like these that keep the Laxtons enthusiastic about the cattle business. Recently, they have taken their enthusiasm for the “beef” business one step further…from the pasture to the plate. In April 1998, they opened the Cherokee Hills Steak House, located on the farm. The restaurant, beautifully decorated to honor Carlton's Cherokee heritage, has been a big hit in the area, serving to a packed house every Wednesday-Sunday night. Customers are treated to top quality food, including thick cut, aged steaks cut by their own butchers, and Romagnola burgers, made with ground hamburger from cattle raised on the farm. Most of the recipes, from the appetizers to the entrées, are Carlton's own creations.
“We had been entertaining guests and feeding crowds at sales and field days for some time now,” Carlton laughs. “We decided to carry it one step further and open a full-blown steakhouse!”
Obviously, the Laxtons have made a commitment to the beef industry in many areas, from seedstock production to the restaurant business. They continue to strive for excellence in all phases of their program, and make it a priority to search out the best genetics. They are currently flushing over 20 Romagnola donors and utilizing the genetics of 14 different fullblood Italian Romagnola bulls in their embryo program.
The results of all of their hard work will be offered to the public Sunday, November 14, 1999 at their first Romagnola production sale. Buyers will have the opportunity to purchase both bulls and females, and will have the unique pleasure of testing the end product for themselves…Romagnola burgers will be served for lunch.
For more information on Romagnola cattle or the Cherokee Hills Romagnola Production Sale contact Carlton or Nancy Laxton at (901) 232-8252.