By Laura Conaway
Jimmy Collins pays no mind to the freight train. Faint in the distance, then all at once overpowering, it demands attention as it and its brothers burst through his family’s land several times a day.
Sometimes even the cows take notice.
Way back in the 1850s, long before his family turned a 680-acre cotton farm into a cattle ranch, the train was there. Every day since, it serves as a reminder of life beyond the cattle and comfort of home.
The roads weren’t paved, the land was in row crops and highly eroded, but James Smart Collins II wanted cows. Beef cattle to be specific. From Montgomery, Ala., he and his family operated J.S. Collins Dairy through the Great Depression and came to know the land 75 miles northeast of him that had no flowing water but nearly 40 natural springs.
“My grandfather bought the farm in ’43,” James (Jimmy) Collins IV recalls and in the 72 years since, four generations of Collinses have raised even more generations of Angus cattle on land near Cusseta, Ala., that’s sustained them both.
On September 26, the Collinses were presented the 2015 Certified Angus Beef ® (CAB®) brand Commercial Commitment to Excellence Award for their dedication to developing the best merits of the breed.
On behalf of the family that includes matriarch Era Claire, Jimmy and wife, Mary, and his son Jim and wife, Jennifer, accepted the award with children Taylor Brown and Jay Collins in the audience.
Gaze across a Collins pasture and it may seem as if Angus cattle have been the only kind to graze it, but the Collinses tried a bit of everything before they settled on the breed that gained them recognition.
“It was about improving quality—building numbers to start with—and then improving the quality of the herd,” Jimmy says. “It’s been a continuous process since then.”
Having “showed many a Hereford steer through high school,” he switched to Angus his senior year and soon after, the herd followed suit.
“We were looking to grow from carcass information and wanted to be rid of the problems with udders and eyes,” Jimmy says. “Crunching numbers, Angus looked like a better alternative. It’s such a strong breed.”
Those early calculations proved true and it wasn’t long before they were running a purebred operation from 10 bred heifers purchased in 1959, eventually selling nearly 100 bulls a year.
With the farm not large enough to support all the families, Jimmy took a position with Farm Credit Services upon graduation from Auburn University. Decades later, when he transitioned to a real estate business, he advised the family to transition to a commercial herd.
Living on the farm and commuting to nearby Opelika each day, mornings and late afternoons were spent tending to cattle while workdays went to financing crops, cattle and equipment for neighboring ranchers and later real estate sales. For years, three generations of Collins men worked together with their families to improve their cattle and impress the consumer at the end of the line.
The 350 commercial cows are carefully managed and selected with the same detail as the family’s 50 head of registered stock. Keeper heifers must breed within the first 21 days. Then there are parameters on birth weight, EPDs (expected progeny differences) and results from GeneMax® (GMX) tests to measure gain and grade in non-registered cattle.
“We try to run a balanced program, rather than chasing outliers,” Jimmy says. “Sure, it’s a slower process, but when you get there, you’re there. We look at growth and carcass quality and strive to be a tier above the industry average.”
Even more, he adds, “We have tried to be more aggressive and balance growth characteristics over time with maternal traits.”
Maternal traits are what keep longtime customers like Omer McCants, Talbotton, Ga., coming back each year.
“I started six years ago and purchased 17 bred heifers and I’ve purchased every year since,” the Army veteran says. “I was impressed with the quality and durability of them. The Collins cows could hit the ground and stay. They didn’t lose.”
Terry Harris, Boston, Ga., can tell of cows he purchased from the Collinses 11 years ago that maintain and reproduce today. Then there are cattlemen new to the business like Jones Woody, Culloden, Ga., who has followed his calves on feed in Iowa and received carcass data showing 81 percent CAB and USDA Prime.
In an industry that sometimes resists change, the Collins men have embraced it in the transition from complete phenotypic to a combination of genetic and phenotypic selection.
“It’s a matter of surviving really and truly,” Jimmy says. “You’ve got to be productive and you can do what you want, but it better be successful and work for the folks who are going to be consuming the end product.”
Right on down the tracks.