Harrell Watts, Jr., Receives ASA Golden Book Award
Harrell Watts, Jr., grew up in a family committed to agriculture and cattle, but he never dreamed, one day, he’d be flying all the way to Montana to help make decisions involving a breed from Switzerland.
It’s the Simmental breed, one of the world’s oldest and most popular breeds; the cattle date back to the Middle Ages.
Relatively new to the U.S. and Alabama in particular, Simmentals have been receiving tender, loving care from Watts and a handful of other cattlemen in the state who have been breeding them for the past 40 years.
When Watts was asked to join the American Simmental Association (ASA), headquartered in Montana, his arrival in Big Sky country was important because it signaled the recognition of Alabama as a true partner, not just a state where the breed was viewed by some as experimental.
Earlier this year, Watts became the first cattleman from Alabama to receive the Golden Book Award. That, in itself, made it official as well as historic.
Only 57 cattlemen from around the country have received the award through the years. Watts was selected along with Thomas Clark from Virginia.
ASA Executive Vice President Jerry Lipsey calls Watts "unique" and underlines his personal contributions to the breed as well as his input as an association leader "and an industry servant to the cattle and beef industries."
"It’s a wonderful honor and was quite a surprise," said Watts, during an interview with AFC Cooperative Farming News at his house in the little Dallas County community of Sardis, a few miles south of Selma. "To be considered in the same sentence with such an elite group of people who have received this award is humbling.
"I really appreciate the thought behind it and treasure the many great friends we have made through the organization."
When Watts and his wife, Cheryl, flew to Denver in January for the annual meeting, they were joined by another Dallas County couple, Jimmy Holliman and his wife, Kathleen. Holliman was elected to the ASA Board of Trustees.
Being nationally-recognized was the last thing on Watts’ mind when he decided to add the Simmental breed to a cattle operation relying primarily on Angus for as long as he could remember.
Simmentals made their U.S. debut in 1968 by way of artificial insemination. Two years later, in January of 1970, the quarantine period had ended and they began to arrive at cattle operations around the country.
"The first ones were too big and did not grade well," Watts recalled. "That’s the reason we started using Angus to downsize them."
The first Simmentals were red and white spotted. Today, they are black although some remain red. Watts has one of them in his herd. She’s one of his favorites, a cow that will eat food pellets out of his hand.
As he grew more comfortable with Simmental breeding and his reputation began to rise within an organization headquartered so far away, Watts received an unexpected invitation.
The year was 1994 and he became a member of the ASA Board of Trustees. Five years later, he served as chairman of the board. It was quite an honor and, according to the organization, well deserved.
The ASA issued a statement saying Watts had arrived "during a time of turbulence and upheaval, and was a calming influence as the organization regained its equilibrium."
The statement did not specify the problem, but Watts’ reaction when he stepped off the plane in Bozeman, where he was to attend his first board meeting, could hardly be overlooked.
In addition to handshakes from a welcoming party, Watts also received a subpoena to appear in court.
"I thought, ‘Oh Lordy, what have I gotten myself into?!’" Watts remembered.
It wasn’t long before he served as chairman of the group’s Growth and Development Committee. He used available funds to keep the breed before the public through a series of ads, brochures and display booths.
Simmentals can’t compare in numbers with more popular breeds in Alabama, but Watts is pleased they are slowly gaining public acceptance.
His is not the largest Simmental operation in Alabama, but his name ranks pretty big in Montana where he is highly respected.
The Watts’ Simmental operation is a family enterprise. The 70-year-old patriarch and his wife, Cheryl, are aided by their two sons—William Harrell Watts, III, and John Fielding Watts. Their daughter Margaret Tipton is an anesthetist.
According to the ASA, about 80,000 cattle are registered each year into herd books in the U.S.
Simmentals historically have been used for dairy, beef and labor. They are known for rapid growth, thus the decision to breed them with Angus to reduce their size a bit.
Of his 300 heifers, Watts said about 200 commercial cows are mixed with Angus traits while 100 are registered Simmentals. Watts has 15 bulls in his pastures.
"I have one of the largest Simmental herds in Alabama, but I’m far from the biggest," he said. "I’d say there are about 5,000 Simmentals in the state right now.
He said Angus have a high marbling content, but lack the muscle Simmentals have. When the two breeds are mixed, they produce quality beef and can sell for as much as $4,000.
"We are always striving to improve our product and right now we’re working to enhance marbling," he said. "Those little white flakes seen in the meat are marbling and it’s good for your heart, not the fat on the outside of a steak."
Dallas County veterinarian Mike Wells credits Watts with getting him into the Simmental business.
"They make wonderful mother cows with good milking abilities," Wells said. "They also have good carcass traits."
Wells, who rented a Simmental bull from Watts and never looked back, praises his friend as a "dedicated cattleman who does a good job of staying on top of current news and genetics. He’s as honest as the day is long."
In his younger days, Watts was quite an athlete who could hurl a softball up to 90 mph during fast pitch competition. He once threw a perfect game.
Billy Powell, director of the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association and a good friend who played third base on their softball team, noted Watts was one of the early breeders in the state "who utilized performance testing to evaluate his cattle."
"Harrell has always been known as a cattle farmer who was one of the first to adapt new science-based practices to his management practices," Powell said. "He takes a lot of pride in his cattle and produces some of the best in the state."
Powell said Watts’ calves "are always in demand from buyers as they know the cattle will grow fast in the feedlot and make them money."
"We congratulate Harrell and the entire Watts family on the well-deserved prestigious award from the American Simmental Association," Powell said.
Watts utilizes the Central Alabama Farmers Co-op in Selma for his feed, fencing and other needs. General Manager Tim Wood salutes him for continuing his family’s dedication to cattle farming.
"Harrell is more interested in quality cattle than spending money for show," Wood said. "We did business for years with his dad and Harrell is just like him. He is a good customer and friend."
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.