When meat scientist Dr. Mark Miller was a 16-year-old FFA member on the hunt for his next show steer, something caused him to take a little detour.
He saw a ranch sign on the side of a road near Guthrie, Okla., and decided to pull in. He’d never heard of Red Plains Cattle Co. or its owner, George Chiga, but figured it couldn’t hurt to look.
Some might say it was divine intervention.
Miller asked Chiga, a founder of the Red Angus breed, if he could see the steers he had for sale.
But the teenager didn’t just see the cattle, he left with a three-in-one — a bred cow with a heifer on the side.
The heifer went on to be named grand champion heifer at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. The next year, she was reserve grand champion, and the calf that the cow had been carrying was grand champion heifer.
Those back-to-back wins and the double championship in Houston inspired Miller to go into the Red Angus business and set him on a lifelong quest — to breed top-quality beef cattle.
Today, Miller and his wife, Celia, along with their four grown children, run a few hundred mother cows under the name Chiefline Red Angus at three Texas locations — their home base in Abernathy, north of Lubbock; the small ranch in the Dallas/Fort Worth area where he grew up; and the land they partner on near the Caprock Canyon.
Revolutionary Breeding Program
Although it’s been more than 40 years since Miller’s fateful steer-buying trip to Oklahoma, he continues to credit the quality of his herd to Chiga, who was his mentor until passing on a decade ago.
“Everything we do today [at Chiefline Red Angus] is still genetically based on what George did from the 1950s through the ’90s,” Miller says.
What Chiga did was revolutionary for that era. Without the means to enter the seedstock business, he bought the red calves that Angus breeders didn’t want and started a breeding program based on linebreeding and inbreeding.
“That’s what gives us genetic predictability,” says Miller. “Our cattle are the result of genetics he put together and bred for his whole lifetime, with careful selection and culling.”
Calling his cattle “peas in a pod,” Miller says their consistency and uniformity trace back to Chiga’s linebreeding and inbreeding work.
“Our genetics are so tight they’re going to bring everything out there into an average,” he says. “Whereas if you take a composite bull, it’s a blend of three different breeds; your cattle go in every direction across that spectrum in genetics.”
He attributes certain other traits in his herd to Chiga’s breeding program, as well, including strong calving ability and maternal instincts, a gentle nature, efficient feed conversion and positive carcass qualities.
Although the Miller family has tried other breeds, they have always returned to an all–Red Angus herd and their niche of raising cattle they consider to be “convenient.”
“Celia is the one who runs everything. I’m a professor and off chasing things around the world. Our cattle have to calve and do it easily,” Miller says. “Celia makes sure the water troughs are full and makes sure they have hay if they need some. But they’ve got to be low-maintenance. They can’t require a lot of inputs. They need the ability to breed, rebreed and take care of their calf without anybody being around.”
Celia chimes in, adding she has never had to deliver a Red Angus calf.
“I’ll check the cow or the heifer and go back in about 30 minutes and in an hour,” she says. “When I go back at an hour, the calf is up and nursing.”
Calving ability wasn’t Chiga’s only interest, however. Early on, he couldn’t sell breeding stock because red cattle were not popular, so he decided to feed out all of his animals and do shear testing on the carcasses — a common method of evaluating meat tenderness. Chiga measured every viably important economic trait and then used the data he collected to further improve his herd, selecting for marbling, ribeye area, tenderness and juiciness.
The studies also provided one surprising revelation.
“They found out that everything is related to the temperament of the animal,” Miller says. “You want animals that are docile and gentle, but are smart, too.”
That early research continues to pay off for Chiefline Red Angus. Miller says his biggest customers are commercial ranchers who need cattle that can “go out there and calve and function without having any problems.”
The market for Chiefline cattle is worldwide. The Millers have sold breeding stock to Mexico, Columbia and Ecuador, and this fall they shipped 100 head to Honduras.
“We have a lot of loyal customers here,” Miller says, referring to his local Texas and New Mexico markets, “but we feel like our export market is probably our biggest opportunity for growth.”
Developing those overseas markets has required a significant time commitment over the years. But asked why he devotes so much time to the ranch when he’s also a busy professor and research scientist at Texas Tech University, Miller admits to a lifelong love of cattle.
“It’s a little corny, I know, but we just love cows,” he says. “I like to go out there and talk to the cows. Because every problem I have, they listen really well.”
It’s also a priority of the Millers to be good stewards of the land, whether it’s taking care of their cattle operation or the crops they grow.
“That’s what our purpose is: to take care of the resources God gave us and produce something to fit every consumer’s needs,” Miller says.
Rotational Grazing for More Grass
One way they do that is through rotational grazing on 30- to 50-acre cross-fenced pastures, which he says encourages efficient use of the grass in a region where water resources are shrinking.
“If you put cows out on 200 acres, they will not utilize that grass correctly. However, if you can put them on 50 acres and let them mow it off, it’s like mowing your yard,” he explains. “The more you mow your yard, the faster your grass grows.”
He says it’s the same way in cattle production, where grass management is critical.
“You have to be able to conserve and take care of your natural resources,” Miller says. “And if you take care of that, the cows will be in good shape, too.”
Over the past 40 years, there have been times when Miller’s cattle operation was small — he owned only one cow while pursuing his Ph.D. — yet his lender, Plains Land Bank, has always supported his goals and vision for the family’s agricultural operation.
“When you’re in farming and you’re in cattle, you’re in a precarious and volatile environment that is always like walking on the cliff,” Miller says. “You need somebody in a financial support role who will stand and work with you and see a long-term vision.
“Plains Land Bank is a big reason we are still in the cattle business. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have been able to stick with it.”