ABBI: Raising Bucking Bulls for Profit and Pleasure
Gone are the days when the bucking bull was the villain of the rodeo. Today, the bovine athlete enjoys celebrity status in a sport that awards a quarter million dollar payout to the top bull each year.
Much of the sport’s popularity begins with Professional Bull Riders, Inc. Twenty bull riders formed the company today based in Pueblo, Colo., in 1992 with the goal of bringing bull riding out of the rodeo world and into mainstream America.
Two decades later, PBR oversees a multi-million dollar industry featuring nationally televised events attended by close to two million fans annually. Even major news outlets have taken notice, including The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and National Public Radio, which have reported on the ascendancy of the “world’s most dangerous sport.”
Bull riding’s success is due in no small part to American Bucking Bull, Inc.’s commitment to breeding high performance bulls. Not only does a fast spinning, high kicking, belly rolling 1,500-pound animal thrill a crowd, it can also earn the rider and stock contractor big money. During the season, bucking bulls compete against one another for over a million dollars in prize money, and those that consistently pull down big points can be worth $300,000 or more. PBR’s top-ranked bull Bushwacker, is valued at just under a million dollars.
Kaycee Simpson operates a commercial cattle ranch in Utah. In 1998, he began breeding bucking bulls as a side business. Simpson went on to raise several buckers such as Red Alert and Sheep Dip. “The first time I put a bucking bull on my ranch my grandpa thought I was crazy,” Simpson recalled. “But I saw this as an opportunity to change what I do on my ranch. I can sell a calf for $800 putting him through the chow line or I can raise a bucking bull worth $5,000 minimum.”
Simpson is now Executive Director of ABBI. The company is owned equally by PBR and stock contactors and promotes the bucking bull breed through DNA preservation and by educating members about bull ownership, breeding, care and welfare. ABBI owns and manages the largest bucking cattle registry in the world which contains the DNA records of 145,000 animals.
ABBI also gives contractors the opportunity to showcase their up-and-coming bovine athletes in sanctioned competitions around the country that award cash prizes for top performers. Last year the organization paid out more than $1.8 million in prize money in addition to $250,000 to Doug Ackerman and Kent Cox, owners of the 2011 ABBI World Champion Bull Back Bender. This October, they will pay out over $1.5 million just at their World Finals events in Las Vegas alone.
Without hesitation Simpson encourages fellow ranchers to try their hand at breeding bucking bulls. “There’s sure a lot more adrenaline and excitement in raising a bucking bull than raising a Black Angus calf, plus the opportunity to compete for half a million dollars throughout the year,” he said.
Raising bucking bulls isn’t just a pleasure, it can be very profitable. Simpson said a beef or dairy heifer may sell for $500 to $700 but a heifer or weanling bull from a line of proven buckers can go for double and even triple that. Moreover, the earning potential for bucking bulls is longer and significantly higher than that of typical show and food cattle. A bucking bull can start winning money as young as two years-old and could potentially continue competing for the next eight years or longer,” Simpson explained. Bucking cattle also tend to be hardier and can often be raised on land not suitable for other cattle. For those cattlemen in warmer climates, the Brahman blood found in many bucking cattle handle heat well.
A contractor with a bull possessing the skills to buck professionally is paid each time that bull leaves the chute. “Every time a bull bucks, the contractor gets a pay check on a per-out basis that can range from $100 an out to $8,000 at the (PBR Built Ford Tough) World Finals,” said Simpson, adding that bull riding has been largely unaffected by the economic downturn. “Our industry hasn’t been changed at all by the financial crisis,” he said. “We’re still paying out $250,000 for first place.” A bucking cow that produces top-level buckers is also highly sought after in the industry. 2008 ABBI World Champion Bull Black Pearl earned over $488,000 in prize money for breeders Steve and Julie Ravenscroft and their partners Boyd-Floyd Bull Co. His dam, SJR 49, sold for $100,000 last year.
Getting started in the industry doesn’t have to be an expensive endeavor however. Bull semen can be had for as little as $25 and an embryo transfer purchased for around $1,000. There was a time when a rancher would buy dozens of bulls in the hopes of discovering just one decent bucker. Those days have been eclipsed by a new age of theriogenological technologies and breeding programs designed to reproduce the qualities that make a top-notch bucker. Some 130,000 bulls and heifers from the United States, Canada, Australia, and Brazil are registered in ABBI’s DNA database, which helps contractors verify the genetic lineage of dams and sires. Technically, you can even produce bucking bulls without a single bucking bull or cow in your pasture by implanting bucking bull embryos in recip cows. Those calves can later be sold or used as the basis to start a bucking cattle herd. No particular breed of cattle has a reputation for producing exceptionally good buckers. Most are Brahman-crossbreeds with traits that sometimes reflect the region where they were born. For instance, bulls from the American Southwest may have the longer horns of the Texas Longhorn whereas those from the Northwest tend to have characteristics typical of the Black Angus or Piedmontese cattle breeds.
“There’s no set breed, there’s just a lot of Heinz 57 sauce to make bucking bulls,” Simpson explained. “We don’t look for one set breed. We just look for the best cow and best bull to mate.”
While breeding programs have almost certainly enhanced the athleticism of this generation of bovine athletes—some bulls are more famous than many riders—Simpson agrees with a refrain common throughout the sport: Great bucking bulls are born, not made. “Genetics are key,” he said, “but there’s always going to be that bull who’s a freak of nature that has a passion to buck.”
A bucking bull’s career trajectory usually begins at 2 years of age when a mechanical dummy is strapped across the young animal’s back to determine whether it has the raw talent necessary to buck in ABBI competition. Those that do will be trained and can gain experience by competing at ABBI events in which bulls 2 to 4 years of age can win up to $250,000.
By the time a bull turns 4, the wheat has been separated from the chaff, as it were, with the star buckers destined for the PBR distinguished from the bulls that will fill the chutes at Touring Pro Events. Although the prime age for a bucking bull is 5-7 years old, some bulls remain competitive at 10 and older.
Newcomers to the sport should talk with established stock contractors and learn as much as they can about bucking bull lineages, Simpson advised. “You don’t buy a bunch of bulls at the sale barn and keep the ones that buck,” he said. “You have to study the genetics and look at the percentages of how many of a bull’s offspring became a bucking bull and how many times a cow produced a bucking bull.”
Simpson continued, “Realistically, stock contractors need to be in this for the long haul. It takes time and years of education to breed their lines and develop their programs. And even if they don’t get the next Bodacious or Bushwacker they still have the opportunity to earn $2,500 on a heifer that someone else can use in their breeding program, which is way more than the $500 to $700 they’d get for a Black Angus heifer used for commercial meat products.”
Oftentimes the bond between contractor and bull becomes so strong that the animal is thought of as a member of the family. Stories abound about the extravagant lengths to which some contractors go to pamper a prized bull. One owner would give his bull bottled water because the animal wouldn’t drink water from a hose. Simpson says many retired bulls that competed professionally live out their days in comfort. If one of his bulls made it to the PBR, he’s kept on Simpson’s ranch as a breeding bull, and when the bull dies he’s given a headstone.
Simpson attributes bull riding’s popularity to a combination of an attraction to danger and an appreciation of America’s Western roots. “People want to see a classic David and Goliath matchup. They want to see a 150-pound cowboy go up against a 2,000 pound animal. You can’t get that thrill and adrenaline rush playing a video game,” he said. “People also want to get back to an American heritage that included ranching and farming and bull riding gets at that.”
Raising bucking bulls is also a good way to bring a family together. Whereas younger generations may not be as interested in the day-to-day chores that ranch life entails as their parents and grandparents are, most young people are enthusiastic about the idea of raising bucking bulls for the PBR. ABBI has started a Junior Stock Contractor program to ensure future generations stay close to their roots and appreciate what it means to raise cattle. Children of any age can join and those 9-18 can compete with bulls they’ve raised at competitive events for prize money and buckles.
Bull riding fans recognize the athletic prowess of these animals and understand it’s one of the hardest sports around. “It used to be that rodeo bulls were a dreaded necessity,” Simpson said. “Nobody wanted to deal with them or handle them, but they had to be there for the danger factor. Now it’s just the opposite. We can sell out Madison Square Garden because people want to watch 55 bulls buck.”
Good bulls are powerful but the great ones are also smart. Red Rock, one of the few bulls inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame, went unridden in 309 attempts because he reputedly always bucked away from the hand the cowboy used to grip the bull rope, making an already difficult ride more challenging. Bulls with that level of intelligence are rare and a wonder to watch in action. “There are bulls that will buck in the same pattern their whole life, but then you get a bull like Bushwacker, and people ask what he’s going to do. Bushwacker doesn’t even know what he’s going to do until he leaves the gate,” Simpson stated.
Now imagine owning a bull like Bushwacker or Red Rock, or even having one capable of competing professionally. “Every day we produce cattle to feed people,” Simpson said, “but think about the fun of having your bull bucking at the PBR World Finals for $250,000 and the excitement that would give your family and grandkids.”
Back Seat Buckers is ABBI’s turn-key bull ownership program. Limited to just 100 animals that have been pre-selected for their ability and elite bloodlines, the animals are drafted in March at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas by program participants who have bought spots.
The animals start competing at 2 years of age and there is a half a million dollars in prize money their Futurity season. Animals are housed, fed, trained, hauled and cared for by some of the top bullmen in the industry, including Kent Cox, Dean Wilson and Joe Baumgartner.
Cox has trained countless ABBI champions and raised and trained 2011 World Champion Classic bull Back Bender. Wilson is an all-around bull man and former bull rider and PBR judge. Baumgartner worked every PBR World Finals as a bullfighter until his retirement and has more in-arena experience with bulls than perhaps anyone else in the world.
The 2012 Back Seat Buckers season consists of four regular season events and a World Finals in Las Vegas in October where the winning bull will earn his owner $250,000. At the conclusion of the season, bulls can be picked up, sold or remain in the program for a Derby (3-year-old) season. Starting at just under $12,000, the cost includes owning one of the 100 bulls and all care, housing, training and hauling for the first season. Owners may bid more money to get a higher spot in the draft. Reservations are now being accepted for spots for the 2013 season.
Visit BackSeatBuckers.com for more information