Growing up on a diversified crop and beef cattle operation, I learned the value of hard work from an early age. In fact, I think many of us involved in agriculture can attest to that. It’s no secret that life on a farm or ranch is not always easy, and it certainly has its share of ups and downs. Despite that, people like Kathryn Hefte devote their lives to caring for the land and livestock.
In Kathryn’s case, she’s been raising cattle nearly all her life. As a result of her hard work and perseverance, she owns and manages a purebred Santa Gertrudis cattle operation near Hondo, Texas. In this episode of the Trailblazing in Agriculture podcast, Kathryn shares how Hefte Ranch has changed and evolved over the last several decades; talks about her family’s focus on continually improving their cattle’s performance; discusses the launch of the Strait-Hefte Tried and True Production Sale; and offers encouragement for young people who are starting out in the cattle industry.
Kathryn’s story is an excellent reminder for all of us, regardless of our age or career path, that hard work and perseverance pay off. I was inspired by Kathryn’s story, and I hope you are too.
Episode 4 Transcript
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Jessie Topp-Becker: Hey, Trailblazers! It’s Jessie and it’s time for another episode of “Trailblazing in Agriculture,” a podcast for anyone interested in hearing the stories of the agriculture industry’s pioneers and innovators.
Today, we continue our series sharing the stories of trailblazing women in the agriculture industry. As someone who grew up actively involved in my family’s diversified crop and beef cattle operation, I always enjoy visiting with others who are directly involved in production agriculture, whether it’s on the crop or livestock side. That’s one of the reasons I’m excited for you to hear from today’s guest. Kathryn Hefte has been raising cattle nearly all her life. Today, she owns and manages a purebred Santa Gertrudis cattle operation near Hondo, Texas. In today’s episode, Kathryn shares how Hefte Ranch has changed and evolved over the last several decades; talks about her family’s focus on continually improving their cattle’s performance; and offers encouragement for young people who are starting out in the cattle industry.
Kathryn, thanks so much for joining us today. Your family’s very involved with Santa Gertrudis cattle; can you tell me a little bit about how you got started in that? I know your family’s history with the breed dates back to the 1940s, but how did your family get started raising Santa Gertrudis?
Kathryn Hefte: My uncle, Dunlap Harper, was one of the charter members of the Santa Gertrudis breed; he started raising Santa Gertrudis in 1944. My family just had crossbred cattle until my brother and I decided to show some cattle in our 4-H program; we were looking for show heifers, so we called my uncle and got some Santa Gertrudis heifers. That’s kind of where it started. We just really enjoyed the youth program in the breed and made a lot of friends. Eventually, my parents sold off the crossbred cattle and purchased Santa Gertrudis in their place, so that’s how we got going.
Jessie: You mentioned that your parents transitioned the cattle business to you and your brother, and I believe that was maybe in the mid-‘90s. What did that transition look like? And how have you and your brother continued to work together over the years?
Kathryn: After we were both out of college and had families, my parents went ahead and transferred the cattle to our name and we took over that business. We’ve always just enjoyed the partnership. I’ve had some cattle up here in Hondo and he runs the cattle down there at our home base in Agua Dulce. We’ve always just gotten along really well and worked it out together.
Jessie: So you have two separate locations, correct?
Kathryn: We currently do. Until I got married, we were both down in Agua Dulce, which is near Alice and Robstown, kind of in that triangle there. Were both down there, and then I got married and moved up to Hondo. My husband and I purchased land and we put the cattle there.
Jessie: How does Hefte Ranch look different than when you first got started with Santa Gertrudis in the ’70s?
Kathryn: A lot different. For one, we’re spread out. We now have cattle in Hondo and still at the home base in Agua Dulce. We have a lot more cattle, and we’re just more intensively involved in it. In the past, I guess when I was growing up, the cattle were just kind of additional to the farming. They would graze off the leftover stubble and whatnot, so they were secondary to the farming as a family business. Now, the way my brother and I are operating it, they’re kind of the foremost part of the business.
Jessie: When you were growing up or showing cattle and then going on to college, and then maybe even after that, did you or your brother discuss that this is what life would look like – that you would both have your operations and that Hefte Ranch would grow to be the operation that it is today. Was that kind of on the dream list, Kathryn?
Kathryn: I think it was always on my dream list, but you just never know what life is going to hold for you. But I always wanted to come back and specialize in the cattle. I did study animal science at Texas A&M, hoping to use that, so it did work out.
Jessie: In addition to you and your brother and your families, I imagine that as your operation has grown and changed, you’ve needed additional help, and I think that’s where your ranch foreman also plays an integral part of your operation and its success. Can you tell us a little bit about him and his role in the operation?
Kathryn: The operation was pretty much on autopilot while I had kids and they were growing up, that was more my focus than the cattle. Once they got a little older, I really started focusing on the cattle and growing that business and improving the cattle. About that time, Kade Thigpen, who is our foreman, came along. He had done some work for me when he was in high school, just a helping hand at the cattle ranch, and we got along great; he’s a real good hand. He’s grown up around cattle. His grandfather runs a sale barn in Pearsall near here. So he’s had so much hands-on experience, which is hard to find. And we just meshed really well in our visions. Once he was able to start helping me and having those extra hands and extra help, we’ve really been able to expand the business.
Jessie: One of the things about your family and your involvement with cattle, and specifically Santa Gertrudis, is your focus on improving the performance of your cattle. Why has that focus on performance been a priority for you and your family?
Kathryn: My dad was always big into the performance side of it and, you know, measuring the cattle to determine how they perform. I think if you want to breed cattle, you’ve got to be willing to do that; you have to be interested in that and you’ve got to want to improve them. That’s why it’s so important for us, just to make sure we’re moving forward.
Jessie: In terms of measuring that performance, what traits are you looking at? And what sort of measurements are you taking?
Kathryn: Whatever we can measure, we measure. It started out with gain tests and measuring the weaning weights and growth and that kind of thing. It’s progressed. Now we do marbling and ribeye area, and just trying to keep records on everything we can – fertility, udder scores, feet and legs. I just try to write it all down, because it all will come in handy eventually.
Jessie: I imagine that takes a lot of time to gather all that information and to record that. What would you say to someone who says, “It just takes too much time? I don’t have the time to do it.” What would you say to encourage them that they should take that time to do that, Kathryn?
Kathryn: I’m still struggling with it myself; those 10 million sheets of little paper that you write stuff down on; where did I put it? Kade does really well at carrying around a calendar and just writing everything that he sees for the day, kind of like a journal. I think that’s brilliant and something we can all learn from.
Jessie: Sometimes we think “I’ll remember that.” But if you don’t write it down, sometimes it’s very easy to forget that.
Kathryn: It’s very easy to forget, especially when you’ve got years and years of cattle that you’re trying to remember and you get one confused with another. You have to write it all down.
Jessie: Technology obviously continues to advance at a rapid pace. How do you utilize technology to make sure that your cattle are as efficient and productive as possible?
Kathryn: We do keep all those records online now – we use CattleMax. We always used spreadsheets to keep track of all these records, but it’s nice that we now have systems that we can purchase that actually do that for us; that technology is helping. Now I’m tempted to get the newest deals where you wave the wand and you get all the information as the cattle go through the chute, so hopefully we’ll upgrade to that pretty soon.
Jessie: I’m sure it’s fun as you think back to what it looked like when you were collecting data and that information in those early years and how it has transformed, like you said now to being able to wave the magic wand and get all that information.
Kathryn: I still don’t have that. I still sit there with my pen and pencil. But eventually, hopefully we will have that.
Jessie: Christmas is coming, so maybe …
Kathryn: Those magic wands are pretty expensive, but yeah.
Jessie: What about ultrasound, DNA testing and all of that, Kathryn? Are you guys doing a lot of that too?
Kathryn: We are. We’ve been doing ultrasound for years now, probably the last 10 years. We do all our heifers and our bulls at about one year of age. The DNA collection we’re phasing that in. It’s a pretty big expense, so we basically just do the ones that we’re retaining in the herd, and the cattle we put in high-end sales, consignment sales.
Jessie: In addition to some of that data collection, we often hear about steer feeder programs and gain tests that producers can participate in to capture that additional performance data. Do you participate in any of those type of activities with your cattle, Kathryn?
Kathryn: We gain test all of our bulls that we’re going to retain, and some that don’t make the cut get gain tested, too. That’s part of our selection criteria is how they do on the gain test. We also feed out steers ourselves. We do probably about 25 head of steers; we retain ownership, feed them out and we get the carcass information on those steers. We’ve also participated in the SGBI Feed Out in the past. We didn’t do it the past two years because the timing hasn’t been correct. But that’s a great program, and we hope to get back in that.
Jessie: Through your many years of performance testing and data collection and your overall experience with the Santa Gertrudis breed, what changes have you witnessed specifically in terms of the quality of the cattle?
Kathryn: It’s been an amazing transformation, but I think that’s happened throughout the cattle business. All cattle seem to be on the road to improvement. If you go back and look at the trends we’ve gone through, hopefully we’re on the right path, but I’m sure we will go to extremes again like we always do. But we’re really pleased with where we are now just selecting on performance. The cattle look a lot better than they did just a few years ago.
Jessie: It’s amazing what that attention to detail and focusing on some of those things can really do that you can actually see that transformation over the course of years. Is that focus on performance, Kathryn, that led you to partner with Strait Ranches to launch the Strait-Hefte Tried and True Production Sale back in 2018?
Kathryn: Yes, Strait Ranches and Hefte Ranch share a common vision. We’ve depended on performance records, as well as visual determination on getting the cattle where we wanted to be. It’s a good partnership in that we do have a common vision of a balanced type animal.
Jessie: Is the idea of hosting an annual production sale something that had been a long-time dream for you?
Kathryn: Not really, but it was the logical next step. It is pretty overwhelming. I’m thankful that we were able to do it in partnership with the Straits, because that took a lot of pressure off, at least you have somebody, a partner to lean on and share your ideas with. It worked out well, and I’m glad we did it and look forward to continuing it.
Jessie: Difficult and challenging are two words that are commonly used to describe the year of 2020. Despite those challenges, you still managed to host the third annual sale in October. How did the sale look different this year, Kathryn?
Kathryn: You know, we were surprised that as many people showed up as they did. We did focus on social distancing and it’s a great location because everything is outdoors. The weather was great, we were lucky that everybody could be outside. I think everybody was looking for something to do after being cooped up, so we did have a large crowd; it didn’t seem to affect our attendance.
Jessie: The quality of the cattle that are offered at your sale continues to improve each year, and this year was no exception. In the sale catalog, you said this year’s sale offering was the best yet. Tell me about this year’s sale. Were you pleased with the results? I know you said attendance wise, you were happy, but in terms of the results beyond that, were you happy?
Kathryn: Oh, yes. Every year, we’ve just been so honored that people come and buy our cattle and value them the way they do. It’s made us feel good. It’s been really nice, quite the validation.
Jessie: I’m sure that’s a good feeling like you said, you’ve grown up with the breed and you’ve put your heart and soul into raising these cattle and like you said to have that validated by these buyers who come out and purchase your genetics, I bet is a wonderful feeling.
Kathryn: We’re always humbled by the response.
Jessie: Have you already started thinking about next year’s sale?
Kathryn: We’re thinking always like two years in advance. You have to because the cattle you’re breeding today, you’re not going to be selling them for two or three years down the road. So we’re always thinking ahead. What are people going to want? And what’s going to meet our needs? That basically comes down to do we want because what we want is what people will want also.
Jessie: As you think about the future, and breeding those cattle and trying to meet those needs, what are some of the things that you’re considering and thinking about Kathryn?
Kathryn: Right now, our main focus is fertility. We want to make sure we don’t lose any of that as we bring in other traits. And just some of the things that I think get lost over time, we’re really focusing on others. We’re at a point right now where we haven’t had rain in a long time, and we’ve had to do a lot of culling. As hard as that is, it does give us a chance to really focus on improving the cattle and cutting those ones that, this is why you’ve been taking records all that time, so you’ll know which ones haven’t been producing up to par and letting those go.
Jessie: You talked about how it’s really dry where you are, the area of Texas that you are in is known for being a little bit of a harsher environment, being really hot and dry at times and things like that. How have you seen the cattle be able to adapt to those conditions, Kathryn?
Kathryn: That’s one of the highlights and best things about the Santa Gertrudis breed is their ability to adapt and to go with the extremes and the environment. The hardest thing about ranching in this part of Texas is the extremes in the weather, go from drought, good years, mostly drought. The cattle have to be able to handle it all, and you have to be able to find a place to take them when there’s no rain. It’s hard when you have cattle that you’ve worked on for so long and you can’t just sell them off when it gets dry, so it’s a struggle. We do find that the years that are droughty, it does force us to improve our herd. It does move us forward quite a bit, actually,
Jessie: Sometimes having to make those hard decisions under pressure, like you said, you can actually result in some positive things.
Kathryn: Exactly. We try to keep that in mind, because it can be unnerving when it’s happening. But over the course of the years, you look back and you realize that it does make you make those hard decisions and make improvements.
Jessie: And certainly an emotional decision too. When you think about the time and effort that goes into selecting those genetics, breeding that cow and watching that calf grow up, then, so, certainly, a lot of emotion can probably be involved in those decisions as well.
Kathryn: Of course. I don’t know if people understand how emotionally attached we are to all these cows. I’ve known them, I guess, you know, grandparents and grandmothers and, you know, I know the lineage of where they come from, and I have memories about so many of them. They’re not just cattle, so it is hard when you have to let some go.
Jessie: Your passion for performance testing is further supported by your involvement as the Performance Committee chair for Santa Gertrudis Breeders International (SGBI). Can you tell me a little bit about your involvement with that committee and the work that you do on behalf of SGBI members?
Kathryn: The Performance Committee is constantly trying to move the breed forward; there is always work to do. It’s a difficult job, because you want to make changes so quick and it doesn’t happen that way. You have to slowly move things forward. It can be trying, but you try to stay on top of trends, try to stay ahead of where the industry is and keep an eye on where it’s going. There are always ways to improve the breed, so it’s a big job.
Jessie: Absolutely. And certainly Santa Gertrudis has made a lot of advancements, and I feel like they’re catching the attention of the larger beef industry and expanding its footprint geographically. It must be exciting to be able to work on behalf of the members and represent them, especially on the Performance Committee.
Kathryn: It’s exciting. There’s a lot we want to do. The hardest part is that you can’t make it happen overnight, but we’re making changes and we’re getting there. It’s an exciting time and it continues to be an exciting time.
Jessie: You mentioned that your uncle was a charter member of the association, so obviously the Hefte family involvement with the breed association dates back many, many years. In addition to the Performance Committee and your involvement there, how else have you been involved in the association personally, Kathryn?
Kathryn: One of the things I’m proudest of is the fact that I helped establish the Better Beef Contest at the National Junior Santa Gertrudis Show. We started off just taking the ultrasound technology there and scanning the heifers that were in the age range, and it’s become a big part of the show, so we’re really pleased about that. Last year, I was involved in putting together the Santa Gertrudis World Congress and that was a blast.
Jessie: You talked about this a little bit, but in recent years, Santa Gertrudis has really started to gain greater industry attention. What do you think that future looks like for the breed?
Kathryn: We have a lot of positives right now. We’ve always been here, and we’ve always had positives, but I think we are being noticed. I think the heterosis that Santa Gertrudis offers is something that the industry is really looking at right now. You know, they’re constantly looking for ways to improve, and I think it’s come to the attention of a lot of people that crossing with Bos indicus-type cattle can help the beef industry more than they realized. I think there’s been some misconceptions about Bos indicus cattle and those are now being corrected. I think we have a lot to offer, and I think the sky’s the limit. We can continue to grow the breed. I think it’s been assumed that those cattle are just for the South, but I think as they look further at us and see what we can do when were crossed with some of these other breeds, there’s just a lot that we can accomplish across the United States.
Jessie: As you think about your journey with the breed and the changes that you’ve made on your operation, what goals do you have for Hefte Ranch moving forward, Kathryn?
Kathryn: To keep improving. We want to stay balanced. We want to be here for the long haul. I think it’s important not to follow the trends too much, but try to focus on the traits that are economically relevant, because that’s what our buyers will need and want.
Jessie: You’re an excellent example of someone who started very young in the cattle industry and is obviously still involved and has had a lot of success over the years, Kathryn. What advice do you have for young people, regardless of what breed that they may be involved in, if they are kind of in that position that you were those many years ago starting off in the cattle industry?
Kathryn: Stay involved. You may not be able to focus on it 100 percent. You might have to do other jobs and focus on other things to pay your way. But if you stay involved in agriculture and in the cattle business, eventually, you will be able to, hopefully, make a difference.
Jessie: Hard work and perseverance pays off.
Kathryn: That’s right. And it may not always be in the way that you thought it was. When I graduated from college, I worked for a bank. That led to a video cattle auction. That was not how I intended to be in the cattle business, but I learned so much during that time talking to the ranchers that were buying the cattle on the video. If you want to be involved, stay involved. Maybe not owning your ranch like you think that your dream is, but you’ll eventually get to where you want to be.
Jessie: Hard word and perseverance pay off. What a great reminder for all of us, regardless of our age or career path.
Thank you so much for joining me for today’s episode of Trailblazing in Agriculture. I hope you enjoyed hearing Kathryn’s story. Join us again next time as we highlight more trailblazing women in agriculture.