The history of Irish Black & Red cattle
October 3, 2018
Does line breeding pay? That was the question asked of Irish Black breed founder Maurice Boney for a Tri-State Livestock News article in 2011.
For Boney, the answer was an unequivocal "yes" — if done correctly.
"I've used line breeding, selecting the best of the best in my gene pool, for five decades now," the late Boney said at the time of the interview. "That foundational principle has guided me in developing Irish Blacks and Reds, a breed that has decades of disciplined line-breeding behind it."
Boney, a well-known rancher in the Angus breed, had grown tired of the show industry's influence on the popular black cattle. To address the issue, he began a personal quest in the early 1960s to create the "ideal" breed of cattle — one that would be profitable for U.S. cattlemen and would ultimately produce high-quality beef for the consumer to enjoy.
"Maurice never wavered from what he was hoping to accomplish, and many people called him crazy along the way," said Lisa Hendrickson, owner of Diamond H Livestock in Saint Ignatius, Mont. and secretary of the Irish Black Cattle Association (IBCA). "Starting with a solid base of plain and hard-working females going back to the Angus sire 'Revolution,' he began carefully crossing and breeding females back to their full brothers and fathers. The theory was, if you bred this way and had no flaws in the calf, you have essentially tested your genetic base for future flaws down the road. With precise control of his breeding program, he culled hard. A female was expected to wean a calf at 60 percent or more of her body weight; if she didn't, she went to town."
Later, Boney introduced Irish beef Friesian bulls into his breeding program, which essentially created the Irish Black and Irish Red breed.
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"He wanted the cattle to be polled, and of course, these bulls were horned, but he figured if he could add in genetics that addressed his focus on carcass traits, he could then breed out the problems that he didn't want," said Hendrickson. "Through this tightly controlled and carefully tested program, his genetics proved to be consistent and time tested."
Boney relied on the advice of Dr. Jay Lush, a prominent geneticist who understood the benefits of line breeding. Boney said, "Dr. Lush was a world-renowned geneticist at that time. He hired Art Mullen, who was my high school ag instructor, to work in Dr. Lush's research programs. Their offices were located next to each other, and I stopped in to see Mullen whenever I had 30 minutes or more between classes. On numerous occasions Dr. Lush joined us. We always discussed genetics when he was there. His input on these numerous 'chats' supplied the genetic foundation I have followed in establishing the Irish Blacks breed."
Confident in his cow base, Boney closed the books on his genetics in 1971, and in the early 1990s, he trademarked the Irish Black and Irish Red breed in order to protect the integrity of the breed. During this time, he sold bulls privately and required a license agreement for each transaction in order to maintain control of the genetics he had so careful constructed.
"The Irish Black and Irish Red breed is the only trademarked breed in the U.S., and the fact that it was developed in the U.S. by an American cattle rancher is even better," said Deb Brown, owner of Long Pines Land and Livestock in Buffalo, S.D. and IBCA president. "Today, our association oversees the registration of Irish Black cattle; each animal must be DNA verified as a pureblood. This gives buyers confidence that they are buying Irish Black cattle. We also have a certified percentage program where cattle must be verified that they are out of an Irish Black dam or sire. You can't 'breed up' the cattle to become purebreds; that will never happen because the purebred genetics will always be a closed herd with verified lineage to protect the work of Boney and to never dilute the genetics he developed."
Boney passed away in 2015, but the legacy of his beloved Irish Black and Irish Red cattle lives on today. Currently, there are 30+ seedstock producers and 3,000 registered cattle represented by the IBCA. The volunteer not-for-profit organization was officially formed in 2013 and works to collect, record and preserve the pedigrees of Irish Black and Irish Red cattle.
Each breeder is dedicated to protecting the breed's attributes to ensure the integrity of the breed. According to the IBCA, "The specific traits that the IBCA is so determined to keep predictable are high fertility (one bull per 50-70 cows), short gestation (277 days), fast maturity, excellent mothering and milk production, vigorous and lighter birth weight calves (60 to 85 lbs.), moderately framed cows and bulls, consistent calf conformation that brings bonuses for uniformity, extreme longevity of production, mild temperament, unmatched feed efficiency, high average daily gains (4 lbs./day achievable), ability to finish by 14 months of age, and most importantly great tasting tender beef with low back fat for better yields."
"Maurice was always concerned with meeting the demands of U.S. beef demand; he set a very strict set of criteria in his selections to make that happen," said Hendrickson. "The result of his work is a breed that is profitable through increased fertility and unmatched feed conversion with predictable performance and carcass traits. I think he accomplished exactly that. He was 93 years old when he finally quit working on the cattle. It was his passion, and for anyone who has used an Irish Black bull on their cattle, it's easy to see why."
To learn more about Irish Black and Irish Red cattle, visit http://www.irishblacks.org.