"I bred everything to something that it wasn’t—I was kind of a heterosis nut."
From the March issue of Drovers.
Flip through the pages of a dictionary and skim across the term unconventional. The short definition is: Very different from the things used or accepted by most people; not traditional or usual. The term aptly applies to Sarah “Sally” Buxkemper of RX Ranch, a Ballinger, Texas, cattlewoman with an unending curiosity and passion for uncovering new knowledge. To put it simply, she is anything but conventional.
In the late 1940s, Buxkemper, the daughter of a Michigan oil businessman, would travel every summer to see her grandmother and great-uncle on the Texas Gulf Coast. Her great-uncle, Stanley “Boots” Kubela, had a herd of Brahmans on his commercial cattle ranch in Matagorda County, and her grandmother, Lucy Kuhn, had Hereford cattle—sparking Buxkemper’s interest in science and genetics. Enrolling at Michigan State University in 1950, she majored in chemistry because of her love for science. Still, something didn’t quite fit, so she turned to animal husbandry. She earned a spot on the livestock judging team, the only female, during her sophomore year. After a livestock judging trip to Oklahoma A&M University (now Oklahoma State University), Buxkemper transferred. She was the second woman to receive a degree in animal husbandry from the university in 1954.
“After I graduated, I went on to work with my uncle and learned a lot about cattle disposition and how to handle them properly,” she says. “He would say, ‘you have to be smarter than they are.’ Brahman cattle are easy to work with if you do it right, but they are terrible if you do it wrong.”
In 1955, Buxkemper went to Brazil with her great-aunt, Bobbie Kubela, to look at Gir cattle to make Red Brahmans.
“We were able to meet with some Nelore breeders, too,” she says. “At that time, Nelore were the preferred beef breed in Brazil, but the scuttlebutt on the Gulf Coast was they were crazy—you didn’t want them.”
However, Buxkemper took note of their advantageous traits—tighter sheaths, better udders and smaller teats than American Brahman, adding their disposition should be watched.
“Years later we were using Simmental and Brahman to make Simbrah cattle. When polled Angus or Red Angus animals were added—to get polled and improve carcass quality—the prepuce became sloppy,” she says. “But the Nelore genetics added in the 1980s helped us to be able to select for cleaner underlines.”
According to Buxkemper, a group of Brazilian Zebu bulls were imported through Mexico in 1946, which contributed to the gene pool for
Red Brahman breeders and gave a new infusion of Zebu genetics for other Brahman breeders. Soon, the border was closed to livestock trade due to a foot-and-mouth-disease scare.
It wasn’t until the early 1980s, when Walker Wilson was able to import more Nelore bulls into Texas from Brazil, that Buxkemper would reach a pivotal point in the genetic direction of her herd.
While there wasn’t any data on the bulls, she bought straws of semen from two bulls. “It was $150 a straw, so I didn’t buy very much,” she says.
Regardless, it did the trick. While she did have to cull some offspring due to disposition, she came out with a F1 cow named Sugar Plum, whose reproductive soundness and good offspring would be a fundamental component of the herd.
After being certified in AI in 1959, she “bred everything to something it wasn’t—I was kind of a heterosis nut. Initially, people thought I was mongrelizing cattle, but if you don’t have it in the gene pool, you can’t select for it very well,” she adds.
Her work was an integral part in the development of Simbrah, a registered composite of 5⁄8-Simmental and 3⁄8-Brahman or Zebu blood.
Her curiosity about genetics led her to enroll at the University of North Texas in 1989. She did a Ph.D.’s worth of work in molecular genetics, stopping short with a master’s degree when she became a grandmother.
Buxkemper has served, as a member on the American Simmental Association board of directors for seven years and advising committees for breed improvement. In 2009, she won the World Simmental Federation Golden Book Award and was inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 2011. In 2012, she received the Pro Simbrah Award in Mexico and the Beef Improvement Federation’s Pioneer Award.
“It’s been fun—I’ve met a lot of interesting people and learned there is a lot of room for differences and for people to work together to solve problems,” she says. “At 82 years old, I’ve been able to see how things change over time. We’re headed in the right direction with all the breeding technology tools we now have.”