Building better beef
Mike Hora is a man of strong convictions.
The Washington County-based beef cattle farmer and breeder is not shy sharing his beliefs on religion, politics or cattle breeding.
His cattle breeding beliefs are summed up in a document he calls the Hora Prime Beef Bull Buyer’s Manifesto. It outlines the expectations and requirements he runs every artificial insemination (AI) purchase through.
“Last year, we picked four bulls, out of more than 2,000, to AI with,” Hora said. “I’m only interested in bulls with elite characteristics.”
In his manifesto, Hora breaks requirements into two categories — must-haves and what he prefers. The list is not small.
Must-haves include: expected progeny differences (EPDs) ; DNA information; carcass ultrasound; complete weights and ratios; cutout info from siblings and contemporaries; genetics including excellent feed efficiency.
Preferred: Inbred bull with inbreeding coefficients, frame score of 5 to 5.5, originated from a fescue operation, fed on "Grow Safe" system, purchase through multi-generational breeder with similar objectives/beliefs, purchase from a breeder who fed out his or her own cattle.
For all his efforts — some might call it obsession — with quality breeding stock, Hora’s beef is regularly ranked among the best Angus in the country. In 2018, his entry took fourth place in the national Angus Value Discovery Contest. It was the third time in recent years his cattle were recognized for superior quality.
“Hardly anybody else puts the work in that we do here,” Hora said.
A work in progress
The 69-year-old owner of between 400 to 600 head of cattle, depending on the time of year, is always thinking about what’s next. But being the producer of some of the best-rated beef in the country wasn’t always a sure thing for Hora.
Much like his beef genetics, it seems like Hora’s life has been a work in progress.
Hora was raised around cattle. He recalls milking dairy cows by hand until he was 14. He struck out on his own after a change in the family business structure, but the farm crisis of the 1980s almost ended his dream of being a cattleman. He managed to avoid bankruptcy, but was left starting over basically from scratch.
Also from the '80s onward, trait breeding and artificial insemination were rapidly improving fields.
Since that time, he said he’s been obtaining premiums for the beef he sells. Most of his cattle go to Tyson in Joslin, Illinois, while some are reserved for local lockers and beef customers. The premiums from the processor really start to add up, helping his bottom line. He often can pull as much as $300 extra per head thanks to beef quality.
Creating the best beef
What sets Hora’s beef apart is his obsession with genetics and creating the best end-product. He feeds his cattle corn grown on his farm. He breeds for carcass quality, high marbling and low fat. Marbling fat, intramuscular fat, has a much lower melting point than backfat, which translates to flavor and more moisture in the meat during the cooking process. He said it is also healthier than fattier cuts of meat.
Thanks to new breakthroughs in DNA testing, he is breeding toward tenderness in addition to other traits.
“Now with DNA research coming along, we can make more progress in one generation then we could in 10 years in the past,” Hora said.
Helping the bottom line
He also believes breeding cattle that consume less and grow quickly will help his bottom line in the long run. If it takes less feed to get a steer to market weight, he pointed out, that saves him money.
Another secret? His championship Angus beef includes genetics from other breeds.
Hora breeds his cows to be about 75% Angus, 15% Hereford and 10% Shorthorn. He said he learned early on that crossbred cows can be bred on average about two years longer that straight Angus.
Ultimately, he ties his operation to a deceptively simple philosophy: Food is health, health is food. “Everything we do is tied to this,” Hora said. “We are trying to raise cattle that are producing beef that’s extremely healthy.”
This belief also informs his row crop operation. The last eight years he has planted cover crops to improve soil health and increase nitrate sequestration.
“One of my goals is to reduce the amount of fertilizer I buy,” he said.
The corn he grows is used exclusively for his operation, mostly for feed and bedding.
Of course, no philosophy should go without an accompanying mission statement. Hora said his is to: Raise the healthiest, most flavorful animal protein in the form of beef.
If that’s the end goal, it seems that Hora has accomplished it.
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