Story by Bruce Shultz
WELSH - The Watkins Cattle Co. is bullish on Brahman cattle. But there’s not a bull in sight at the WCC ranch.
“We don’t even have a bull on this place,” said Stuart Watkins. “The recipient cows will never see a bull, ever.”
The ranch specializes in high-quality replacement heifers, using a high-tech system of sexed semen with in-vitro fertilization and embryo transfers.
“Our largest market is the replacement heifer market,” Stuart said. “Our goal is 60to 100 Brahman females thru IVF and sexed semen.”
The WCC is a family-run operation started by Stuart’s parents, Carson and Marilyn Watkins.
“We bought our first Brahman female in the mid to late 90s. I was old enough to show cattle then.”
Stuart’s sisters, Caroline and Olivia, also showed cattle and they also have roles in the Watkins Cattle Co.
“Showing cattle was a big part of our lives growing up,” he said.
Allen Hogan, retired LSU AgCenter county agent in Jefferson Davis Parish, remembers the Watkins well. He worked with the Watkins when Stuart, Olivia and Caroline showed cattle in 4-H.
“I enjoyed all of my years working with all three of those kids,” Hogan said. They were a good 4-H Club family.”
The Watkins family benefited the 4-H program, he said, and they were willing to haul animals, loan equipment and give advice to newcomers to the show arena. “They would even provide animals to kids who couldn’t afford cattle.”
Hogan said Carson Watkins was innovative and willing to adopt new ideas, such as artificial insemination and embryo transfers.
After Stuart graduated from LSU, where he was class president 2009-10, the Watkins Cattle Co. shifted from a cow-calf operation to a purebred registered Brahman enterprise specializing in replacement heifers.
To start an embryo transfer, unfertilized eggs cells called oocytes, are first collected from the ovaries of donor cows. Flushing 10 oocytes in one session is good, Stuart said. “We’ve had cows give close to 30.”
Next, they are matured in a Petri dish and fertilized 20-24 hours later with sexed semen that ensures the process will result in females. To obtain sexed semen, sperm cells with the two X chromosomes that will produce females are segregated in the lab.
After fertilization, the embryos can be implanted in commercial cows.
“We do implants every 2 months,” Stuart said.
The WCC has up to 150 recipient cows that receive embryos from 20-30 Watkins donors.
Any surplus embryos left over from implanting are frozen to be used later. Stuart said the percentage of fresh embryos that result in pregnancy is higher than frozen ones, about 60 percent compared to 50 percent.
Stuart praised two reproductive technicians, Audy Spell and Joel Carter, for their expertise. “They lead the world in embryo implants. The success of our operation is because of those two guys. We’re so lucky to have that in Louisiana.”
And he said vet Chip Fontenot of Welsh plays an integral role in the process also.
“Having him within 2 miles of the ranch is such as asset.”
The Watkins ranch has red and grey Brahmas. At first, they had greys only, but they got into red Brahmas after 2011. Both colors have attracted an international market for the Watkins.
“At any given time, people from all over the world will be here,” Stuart said. He listed a number of foreign visitors from Colombia, Australia, Mexico and most Central American countries.
But most of the Watkins’ clients are from the Gulf Coast, primarily south Louisiana, Stuart said.
He also travels abroad to meet with customers, and to judge cattle shows.
“I enjoy every chance I get to go to those countries. I went to Australia in October, and I went to Vietnam last year.”
And he said the Brahman breed is the common denominator. “These cattle are made to go in the harshest terrain and environment. A Brahman cow in July or August will be out grazing, while British cows will be under the trees.”
While most buyers are looking for replacement heifers, some will use Watkins cows to produce F-1 outcrossings of Brangus or Braford.
Showing cattle is a good way to advertise, and Watkins cattle have a string of several grand championships. The ranch was well represented at the 2017 National Brahman Show in October in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where Miss WCC Donnatella 117/4 was named National Grand Champion. She is now being rebred at another ranch.
Donnatella follows a long line of Watkins’ cows that have been winners in the show ring.
In the pasture can be found a national champion, known as just 335, that has led the U.S. in recent years for producing the largest number of champions through her eggs, Stuart said. “She’s the matriarch of our operation.”
The Watkins have a bull, Maximus Rojo, at a ranch in Texas. He’s never been to
Louisiana but his semen has been used in more than 20 countries. “He breeds live cows, just not here.”
The ranch has two online sales a year. “We’ll probably do another online sale in
Stuart said videos of their cattle draw considerable interest, and buyers make bids online. “It’s kinda like eBay.”
Watkins Cattle Co. is on Facebook, and it has a website at watkinscattlecompany.com. Stuart also is on Instagram to show photos of
the cattle. “Social media has really changed the game, especially for purebred.”
Stuart said customer service is the key to the family business, even though it adds to the expense of producing an animal. “People come here to buy a superior product, so it’s worth it. We put the customer No. 1.”
That means providing a genetic verification of each calf to show that the mating matches the listed pedigree. Calves are weighed at birth. Cows that produce calves with low birth weights are a priority, he said, for easier birthing.
Stuart said an effort is made to frequently visit the calves to get them acclimated to humans. “Docility is a big factor for our customers.”
The current calf crop is small, but Stuart has picked out one calf that shows promise with good lines and musculature. “That one in the middle, I think she’s got a great future.”
He’s already considering what pairings he will use for the calf’s eggs. “I had her genetic makeup in mind since 2014, and I already know what bull I will mate that animal to. I do matings two generations out. It’s all about flushing the right cows for the right genetics.”
After Stuart graduated from LSU (all Watkins family members are LSU graduates)he went to work in Austin, Texas, doing public relations work for a real estate development company. Much of what he learned working there for 5 years has helped in the cattle business, he said.
But he said the family has been the key to the WCC. “We’re successful here because it’s me, Mom and Dad and my two sisters.”
He credits his parents for their willingness to try new approaches. For example, he said his father decided they should use sexed semen.
He said he handles much of the repro aspects and marketing while his dad runs the ranching functions. Stuart divides his time about evenly between Welsh and Austin where he is a real estate salesman for ranch properties.
“Mom is the backbone of the company with crunching numbers and forecasting where we’re going.”
His sister Caroline is married to a cattle rancher in south Texas, and his sister Olivia also lives in Texas and she has a small herd.
“All of us have such a passion for these cattle,” Stuart said. “We’re so lucky to have parents who raised us around a farming and ranching environment. I love working with my parents. Every day, we just enjoy working together.”
He said the work is hard, and sometimes the hours are long, but he loves raising cattle. “It makes it all worthwhile to drive out and see those baby calves.”