Holden Herefords: Linebreeding Line One Herefords | TSLN.com

Holden Herefords: Linebreeding Line One Herefords

By Ruth Wiechmann, Freelance Contributor
Jessica and Brad Holden, Eric and Brooke Lawver, Jack and Tresha Holden.

Jack Holden’s family has been in the Hereford business for over seventy years. Jack is the third generation in his family to raise registered cattle in north central Montana. Jack’s grandparents, Les and Ethel Holden, purchased the ranch in 1954, using money from the sale of their grade Hereford cows to make the down payment on two adjacent irrigated farms southwest of Valier. The buildings were in disrepair and the land was depleted from years of erosion blowing the topsoil away. Les seeded the cultivated ground to hay and pasture and slowly built up the soil. 

Jack and his wife Tresha came back to the ranch as a young couple almost 35 years ago, when Les and Ethel were ready to slow down.  

“We have been very blessed to carry on for my grandpa,” Jack said. “I grew up only a mile away, so my grandpa started taking me with him when I was 3, and gave me my first cow when I was 9. I grew up working alongside him. There was his way and the wrong way, but I think he was a little easier on me as his grandson than he was on his hired help or his own sons. We’re still doing a lot of things that I learned from him, as well as what I learned from my dad, who was also a great cattleman. I was only twenty-one when we came on the place. My grandparents didn’t have much when they started out and they worked hard to build it up. We always try to keep that in mind.” 

Les and Ethel started their registered herd in 1947 with the purchase of a Line One Hereford bull from the U.S. Range Station at Miles City, Montana. They then acquired two consecutive registered heifer calf crops from Carl Keickbush of Townsend, trading him one and a half commercial Hereford heifer calves from their herd for one registered heifer from Carl’s. These heifers also traced back to Advance Domino 13th, foundation sire of the Line One Herefords at the Miles City Research Station.  

Jack carries on with the linebreeding program that Les believed in. Uniformity, quality and high performance drive breeding decisions and selection in the herd. 

“Linebreeding is controlled inbreeding,” Jack said. “Inbreeding can suppress performance; you have to use above average traits because linebreeding can and will exaggerate both the good and the bad in your breeding stock. That’s why we are so hard on our cows. We expect the dams of our bulls to be flawless. You have to look so far ahead when you are making breeding decisions.” 

Holden bulls winter well in the harsh climate of north central Montana. They are hardy and work well in a variety of environments all over the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Frozen genetics have also been imported to Australia, South America, England and Scotland. 


While pedigrees are a part of the selection process when breeding choices are made, it is only one facet of the total package. The proof is in production.  

“My breeding philosophy is to not breed outliers to outliers,” Jack said. “We breed all traits toward the middle, not to the extremes. That gives more consistent offspring overall. We do complementary breedings based on pedigrees, but we are not going to breed any closer than we have to. We have some incredible cow families stacked in there, but you always have to be careful not to back yourself into a corner. Sorting breeding herds can get interesting because there are some cows that will cross on a certain bull and some that are too closely related. We are very hard on our bulls when we’re in the selection process. There is a certain phenotype we breed for, and stringent selection over many years has helped to produce consistent uniformity in type and kind.” 

Les Holden was a pioneer in performance-testing his cattle. The family has been tracking birth weights, weaning weights and yearling weights since the late 1950s, long before anyone had heard of an EPD. Les and Ethel were charter members of the Montana Beef Performance Association formed in 1956, and Les served as the association’s president in 1965-66 as well as a director for many years. This was a great tool, as they worked to improve their herd. Jack continues to strive to breed for performance and balance, and the linebred cattle have been very consistent across the board.  

“These Line One cattle have been good for the Hereford breed and the beef industry,” Jack said. “They have worked very well for our program with linebreeding. They are very consistent. We want to give our customers the best, with a continued push for performance while maintaining a balance of other traits, including maternal abilities. We strive to be on the edge of genomics; we started running the GE-EPDs as soon as that technology was available. We have customers who have bought bulls from us for forty-five years; I think that’s a pretty good test of how the cattle work for them.”  

Holden Herefords have sold all over the United States, Canada, and Mexico and frozen genetics have gone to Australia, South America, England, and Scotland.  

“They work well for our customers in all kinds of different environments,” Jack said. “We have built a lot of great relationships in the business.” 

Jack estimates that 20 percent of the cattle he sells stay in Montana, with another 30 percent finding homes in adjoining states, and the rest going farther afield. Two-thirds of their bulls sell to commercial producers and about one-third to registered seedstock producers. 

“We’ve got a lot of Angus power in Montana,” he said. “That may be why this area has been a little slower than others to do a lot of crossbreeding. Most of our customers sell cattle by the pound, and this dry year has certainly been a good testament to how our genetics are doing. On average years, our customers report that their baldy calves wean 40 to 50 pounds heavier than their straight black calves; this year we’ve had reports of the baldies being 60 to 70 pounds heavier.” 

With a strongly maternal-based program, pushing for performance in a cow herd that is highly fertile and has good udders, Holden bulls also sire some top-notch baldy replacement females. 

“A lot of our customers do very well with their baldy females,” Jack said. “Up here we have a pretty tough environment and it’s hard to beat a baldy as an all-around good cow. When it comes to efficiency and fertility she’s sure as good a cow as there is.” 

Most farmers and ranchers hope that the next generation will be there to carry on the family operation, and Holdens feel very blessed to have another generation on the ranch, taking an active part in raising quality Line One Hereford breeding stock.  

Jack and Tresha’s son, Brad and his wife, Jessica, and daughter Brooke and son-in-law Eric Lawver, are the fourth generation on the ranch. Brooke and Eric’s 20-month-old son, Brayton, is already taking an interest in “Papa’s bulls,” and loves to peruse bull catalogs, watch bull videos, and check pastures with Jack to see bulls, more “bulls” and “baby bulls.”  

“Brad and Eric both have a good eye for cattle and are excited about going forward with the breeding program,” Jack said. “We are very blessed to have a good crew. Jay D. Evans has been here for 25 years; when my family was growing up it was just me and him. He’s a great herdsman and we see cattle very similarly. I know that if I’m away he’s got everything well in hand.”  

The Holden cows have an official Jan. 2 due date, but years of selection for moderate birthweight shorten the gestation length a bit and the first calves arrive just after Christmas.  

“Through January and February we are busy calving and working on sale preparations,” Jack said. “We get weights on the bulls, get our catalog printed, and video the sale bulls. Our sale is held in March and right after that we’re rolling into branding, sorting cows into breeding groups. We breed in April and May, including putting in 100-150 embryos every year. By mid-May, we get the bulls delivered and by late May we pull our bulls and get the cows moved to summer pasture. We sort the dams of bulls into one group and the dams of heifers into another group, and the bred heifers run in a third group. Summering them in those big groups gives us a good comparison on how the calves wean off and how the cows do over the summer. We preg-test the end of June, then turn bulls in for another forty days. We will sell all of the March and April calvers.” 

The summer is also full of work in the hayfield. With an annual rainfall of under fourteen inches of moisture, the good irrigated hayland on the ranch is quite a boon. 

“We put up 3,000 to 4,000 tons of hay every year, with just our crew of four,” Jack said.  

Calves are weaned the end of August or early September. Fall calving cows start calving around August 1.  

“And then we do it all over again,” Jack chuckled. “There’s no rest for the weary! We flush about one hundred embryos for fall-born calves every year. We get our weaned calves on feed and of course we are also feeding the previous year’s fall-born bulls. And there are fencing jobs and other fall projects. We are very blessed with a good crew!” 

Good cattle and good friends are the driving force behind the Holden program. 

“It’s been almost 35 years since Tresha and I came home to the ranch,” Jack said. “A lot of people that used to be here are gone, now; new people have come; some people that were there before we took over are still doing business with us. They are incredible friends who are just like family to us. It’s a lot of work but it’s a great way of life and there are so many great people in the Hereford business.” 

There are a lot of good cattle on the Holden Ranch, but Jack is not satisfied.  

“The day you think you’ve raised the perfect animal is the day you’d better quit,” he said. “There’s always room for improvement.” 

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