Karen Kaeberle stood among her herd of Texas longhorn cattle early on a Friday morning, partly in the role of caregiver, and partly, it seemed as a playground monitor.

A few of the cattle seemed to be in conflict over who knows what, and Karen intervened. She stopped the head-butting by driving her pickup right in between the critters that weren’t getting along.

Soon, serenity returned to her pasture, located southwest of Meckling on farmland once tended by her parents.

They are both gone, and the house they lived in now sits empty. Karen lives nearby, however, operating the farm and taking advantage of opportunities that weren’t available to her as a young woman.

Meckling may be a long ways from Texas, but her animals are doing quite well, thanks, in part, to the excellent care she provides, and also because of the incredibly mild weather southeast South Dakota was enjoying in late October.

Some of her cattle were feeding on a large round bale of hay that had been deposited in their pasture earlier that week. Many members of the herd, however, opted to nibble on grass that was still green and vibrant.

“They eat alfalfa, yes, but that isn’t their primary food. They like grass,” she said.

Karen paused in delight as several of her more curious longhorns slowly approached her pickup. Some sniffed it. Some even licked it, and as they did, the tips of their horns clinked against the vehicle’s steel sides.

One longhorn, her curiosity satisfied, began using the pickup’s back bumper as a scratching post, hoping to rid herself of an itch on her neck. Karen, fearing one of the animal’s sharp horns might break her vehicle’s tail light, responded by scolding her until she stepped away.

“We spend a lot of time with them,” she said. “We’re out and about a lot. They smell and they hear my pickup all of the time.

“When I come into the pasture with my yellow four-wheeler and something has happened – let’s say they’ve gotten out or there’s been some sort of problem, I’ll say to them ‘You want to rodeo? Well, we’ll rodeo, then!” Karen said, laughing loudly. “When they hear the word ‘rodeo,’ it’s just funny. Their tails go up, and they run.”

She addresses many of the females of the herd by name. Knee Sox got her name because of the unique, dark markings that go from her hooves up to the middle of each front leg. Soon Basket, another young female, approached her vehicle.

While watching the animals mingle around her pickup, she points out that the classic longhorn look – that distinct imagery of their horns – comes not from the longhorn bulls, but from the breed’s females.

“This Texas longhorn motif – that’s all cow,” Karen said. “The motif of the horn that we find on caps and that we find on everything associated with Texas longhorns comes from the cow. Most people don’t know that. They think it’s all bull. Bull horns never get as big as cow horns.”

Calmly staying about 100 feet away from all of the curious females is the largest bull of the herd – distinct not just because of his size, but also because of his coloring and unique build.

“He has the classic Wichita refuge look,” she said. “That’s one of the huge, original refuges in Oklahoma established to save the longhorn.”

Karen’s cattle, like all other longhorns, are descendants of the first cattle in the New World, brought by Christopher Columbus and the Spanish colonists, and have a high drought-stress tolerance. Texas Longhorns are known for their diverse coloring, and can be any color or mix of colors, but dark red and white color mixes are the most dominant.

In the nation’s early history, especially as agriculture and ranching were developing in southern and western regions of the country, other breeds of cattle demonstrated traits more highly valued by ranchers, such as the ability to gain weight quickly.

The Texas Longhorn stock slowly dwindled, until in 1927 the breed was saved from near extinction by enthusiasts from the United States Forest Service, who collected a small herd of stock to breed on the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Lawton, Oklahoma.

From that herd comes the classic “Wichita refuge look.”

Other efforts that helped save the longhorn include those taken by J. Frank Dobie and others, who gathered small herds to keep in Texas state parks. They were cared for largely as curiosities, but the stock’s longevity, resistance to disease and ability to thrive on marginal pastures quickly revived the breed as beef stock and for their link to Texas history.

Karen, who graduated from USD decades ago with a degree in zoology, and who continued her education in animal research in Canada, purchased her first longhorn about 16 years ago, not long after returning to South Dakota.

Today, her herd includes 36 cows, a small number of bulls, and a few yearlings and calves. Some of the younger stock will soon be sold as new calves continue to arrive.

While describing the breed’s characteristics, one of Karen’s “favorites,” – a cow who is the granddaughter of one of her earlier cattle purchases, approached.

“This is what I call my Miss USA, and my Miss Universe,” she said. “She’s absolutely exquisite. She’s so perfect. She’s so pretty. This cow is not very big – and that’s because she’s (descended) from the Wichita refuge – they weren’t particularly big cows. But they actually are looked at as some of the best breeding stock that’s left.”

Her love of longhorns is connected, in part, to her early years on the family farm near Meckling, where her dad raised fat cattle.

She started her herd by buying a longhorn bull in Minnesota in 2000, and, in the following year, she purchased four unrelated yearling heifers, all from different places.

“This is my piece of the west,” Karen said. “When we grew up, the thing was we were told to go, as in go away – especially girls. You couldn’t participate (in farming). You graduated from high school, and you could go to college, but you couldn’t participate because the men did.

“You could marry someone who participated in agriculture, but if you were a woman, you participated in the house and the garden, but not so much in the farming,” she said. “Now ranching is different. Women have always participated in ranching, and I’m not sure why that is. There are more ranching women in South Dakota than there are farming women in South Dakota.”

At first, while seeking a way to obtain a “piece of the west,” Karen attended several western auctions, where she would run across old wagons and other things that represented the western folklore.

“I’m interested in mammals, and animals, and so I got this idea to buy a longhorn,” she said. She purchased a calf in Mitchell in 1999, and in 2000, purchased her bull from Minnesota.

“My herd is a closed herd. I don’t go out and buy longhorns, because to be safe, you have to know your cattle. I’m a small woman, and I’m alone out here a lot, and I just know that from childhood,” Karen said. “If your animals know you, you probably aren’t going to get hurt.”

She is a self-described animal enthusiast who receives great joy, she said, from raising generation after generation of longhorns.

“There is extensive enjoyment,” Karen said, “participating in who they are. It’s a very strange thing. I study them a lot; I’m very interested in animal behavior, and it is very hard for me to part with them. Some people say, ‘well, they are just your pets,’ and I don’t look at them as pets at all. They’re not pets.”

She paused in mid-sentence, just to point out a particular characteristic of a heifer as it slowly approached.

“You celebrate their beauty, and you celebrate their natural way of going,” Karen said. “You also celebrate the fact that there are not many breeders in South Dakota. You may have people buying and selling longhorns once in a while, but people raising longhorns – I think there are only about 15 in the state.”

Winter certainly isn’t as cruel, climate-wise, in Texas as it is in South Dakota. Karen said the hardy nature of longhorns allows them to deal with the cold and snow that will arrive eventually.

A nearby cornfield will be harvested soon. As winter moves in, the herd will be moved to a rye pasture, and also will get access to the harvested field to dine on cornstalks.

“This is where they’ll spend the winter. We’ll also supplement-feed them; sometimes I even get distiller’s grain for them, but not a lot. There’s a lot of energy, and warmth and a lot of calories in it,” Karen said. “They are fairly hardy in the cold, which is surprising. They’ll seek shelter if we’re in a storm. They won’t stay down here; they’ll get as close to the buildings as possible, and they’ll stand as a group. I try to provide bedding so they don’t have to lie on the cold ground, but they will do well.”