An Oregon family continues their longstanding dedication to the Simmental breed.
By Lilly Platts
Shawn Hester believes in the Simmental breed and for many years has been a dedicated advocate. Shawn and his parents, Dale and Bette, own and operate Hester’s Livestock in Aurora, Oregon, and have been improving their breeding program for over 30 years. The strong group of females began with a Simmental cow Dale kept off of a truck of butcher cows bound for the stockyards in 1987. Bette encouraged him to keep the cow with twins on her side and she went on to be an important producer for the family. Today, Hester’s Livestock raises purebred bulls for commercial producers and continues to help them take advantage of the heterosis Simmental offers. “We have really been focused on improving the breed,” says Shawn. “We never bailed on Simmental, just decided that we can breed better cattle.”
The Hester family has been in agriculture for many generations. Dale’s parents farmed on Government Island, an island in the Columbia River between Vancouver, Washington, and Portland Oregon, for several years prior to moving to Aurora. They continued to farm, and Dale purchased land from his father where he began raising dairy and beef cattle. The operation moved through raising Holstein and Jersey replacement heifers to Hereford, Limousin, and Angus. As a cattle buyer filling orders for feedlots and packers, Dale saw every breed and breed combination, quickly raising his appreciation for a good disposition. Upon beginning the Simmental operation, Dale maintained this priority. Today, a bull with a poor disposition doesn’t get a second chance. Shawn recalls attaining that first Simmental cow they named Class. “In 1987, my dad purchased a load of butcher cows and one on the load was a Simmental with twins,” says Shawn. “My mom liked the cow and wanted to keep her. She had a number and we named her ‘Class,’ and she ended up being the nucleus of the herd.”
Shawn showed several of Class’s daughters at the National Western Stock Show in Denver and her genetics continue to influence the herd. Alongside Class, several other cows became important matriarchs of the operation.
Glancing at a map of Simmental membership shows that Simmental breeders thin out moving west. This is not due to a lack of opportunity. The Willamette Valley is an extremely productive agricultural area. Rich farmland and grass make it a hotspot for growing food of all kinds. The largest issue Shawn points to is rain. While this is the reason they can graze more cows per acre, getting through calving season without walking pneumonia can be an issue. In the winter, temperatures become moderate in the daytime and can fall dramatically at night, making it difficult for young calves to adjust. Due to this, the Hesters have chosen to calve in the spring when they expect the most moderate weather, avoiding much of the extreme temperature change.
Focused on the Female
“The whole herd today goes back to three very distinct cow families,” Shawn explains. Through extensive embryo transfer work and AI, the Hester family has created an extremely strong group of females. “I would be comfortable flushing the majority of females in our herd,” he continues.
This focus on females is also extremely important in the genetics they select. Shawn spends hours every year creating a “bull book.” Part of his process includes looking at the cow family of every prospective sire. “Every year, when we decide what we are going to breed each female to, I put together a bull book. I will spend 120 hours-plus doing research,” Shawn explains. “We grade our cows, looking at EPDs and internal traits we keep track of and document, and then we will come up with a first, second, and third choice for each cow. We don’t just breed to bulls. If we’re going to breed to a bull, we’re going to breed to the cow family that bull came from.” Females have to make the grade to stay in Hester’s herd, and maintaining the highest standard with direct and second-hand customers alike is vital. “When we get cows that have a trait that doesn’t fit our program, we don’t sell them to other breeders. We would rather take the loss and have them butchered than have someone else end up with a cow we didn’t want to keep for ourselves,” says Shawn. Fertility is a high priority and a trait never overlooked. “We’ve found that if we need to use a cleanup bull due to not being easy to breed or they have a genetic issue, then they’re still going to be hard to breed with a cover bull,” explains Shawn.
Building a Bull Hester’s Livestock’s main enterprise is selling bulls. They do produce females and will sell a number of them — usually flushing the top end to maintain their genetics — but the majority of their business is bulls. Bull calves are fed out at Hester’s until being sold as yearlings. Coupled with their commitment to promoting the Simmental breed, the Hester family has put their bulls in the hands of breeders once leery of the breed. “We’re working toward customers who haven’t had a purebred Simmental bull in over 20 years,” explains Shawn. He mentions a truckload of bulls recently sold to an Angus breeder who hadn’t touched the breed in more than 20 years.
Word of mouth and reputation are the main way they promote bulls. Shawn translates his passion for Simmental to fellow cattlemen and will even cold-call potential customers after seeing a list of buyers from other sales. Admitting that it isn’t uncommon to be hung up on, Shawn is willing to do whatever is necessary to spread the word about the benefit of Simmental for the commercial industry. “If you have one customer who is happy with his bulls, and happy with his calves, then he’s a repeat customer and he might tell his neighbor to buy bulls, too,” says Shawn.
The Big Picture
Putting energy into heavy culling and meticulous genetic selection has helped the Hester family produce consistent, predictable seedstock. While business and making a profit are a goal of all producers, the Hester family has been especially focused on the larger goal of improving the Simmental breed and making their bulls the best option for commercial producers. Low birth weights are a trait Hester’s cattle are known for. This quality has been developed over many years by improving their existing cow families. Shawn explains that one of their cow families with an average 125-pound birthweight many years ago will now produce calves with birthweights in the high 60s.
What Shawn calls “Purebred Heterosis” is a principal utilized to create unique, strong genetics. Dale and Shawn look for outcross genetics when they choose which bulls to breed to. Shawn points out that many of the popular bulls in the breed today have great EPDs and performance numbers, but don’t fit the overall goal of their operation. Instead of defaulting to what the rest of the industry is using, the Hester family will find bulls with possibly lower EPDs but an outcross pedigree to add to their program. As Shawn notes, young bulls with lower numbers shouldn’t be overlooked if their phenotype fits the bill, as they may only have a handful of calves — and consequently data — in the picture.
Ninety percent of Hester’s herd is red, which is an intentional choice they have made. Shawn points to several reasons they have gone this route. From the outside, the Hesters became involved with the breed when they boasted the light red and white colors of their European ancestors. They are partial to this distinction in an industry that has gone black. From the inside, they have more outcross options with red. If they chose to introduce any other breed, or sell cattle to other breed producers, they can go to a number of breeds. Shawn notes several Southern commercial producers using Simmental-Hereford cross bulls as well, presenting new opportunities for producers focused on red.
Keeping with Tradition
In conjunction with their partiality to red cattle, the Hester family also likes many of the traits the older genetics bring to the table. Because they have conquered the large birth weights often associated with the original Simmental, taking advantage of the positive traits of milk and growth is possible. Shawn points out that the versatility of the breed, and particularly of the older genetics, makes the breed unique. When the Simmental breed hit its lowest point with extreme birth weights, all-leg, and low yields, most Western purebred breeders decided to move on to other breeds. Some came back but chose crosses like SimAngus™. The Hester family stayed with purebred Simmental. “We are one of the few operations on the West Coast that is exclusively purebred,” explains Shawn. Driven by this tradition and a love for the breed, the Hester family will continue to improve their genetics and make their way in the cattle business. “It’s something I have a passion for and love. I can’t see myself ever not being involved in the cattle business,” Shawn concludes.