Ranch History and Breeding Philosophy

Click here to see a 45 minute video of our ranch history,
breeding program and showring success.

"Nizhoní" is a Navajo word that means "nice, attractive, good, functional and desirable." We thought it was a good word to describe the kind of cattle we try to breed. Our logo is one of the basic motifs in Navajo weaving, signifying beauty, harmony and well-being throughout the cosmos. The borders on our ads also represent Southwest Indian designs.

Nellie is a Navajo, and Gary, as a cultural anthropologist, has focused his studies and writing on Navajo language, art, history and culture. He has published six books: Navajo Kinship and Marriage, Language and Art in the Navajo Universe, Navajo Weaving: Art in its Cultural Context, Black Mountain Boy, Diné Bizaad Bohoo'aah, and most recently Dynamic Symmetry and Holistic Asymmetry in Navajo and Western Art and Cosmology. Language and Art in the Navajo Universe was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, is listed by the New York Time Review of Books as one of the top 50 books published in the field of anthropology in the 20th century, and is listed in the top 5 books published in the field of ethnic art.

Herd History

We started in the cattle business in 1971 in a partnership on a 1300 acre commercial cattle ranch in Mills, Utah (population 26).

We ran a herd of horned Hereford cows, using both Hereford and Angus bulls.

Our first registered females were 7 Polled Hereford heifers we purchased in 1972 from Vern Mangelson of Levan, Utah. These were mostly of Lampliter and Mischief breeding. In 1973 we purchased 7 more heifers from Vern Mangelson, and today maybe half of our herd traces back to those 14 heifers. They were very fertile, easy fleshing and highly productive. We purchased our first Polled Hereford bull in 1973, and joined the APHA as a lifetime member at that time. We joined the AHA in 1978 as a lifetime member. We have been in Guidelines since 1976 and TPR since 1982.

When our ranch partnership dissolved, we took the registered cattle to Ignacio, Colorado and started Witherspoons' Nizhoni Herefords as a strictly registered cattle operation.

However, we continued to run our registered cattle the same as if they were commercial cattle. We wintered them on 6,500 acres of winter range land in New Mexico, and summered them on irrigated pasture in Colorado.

They never got any grain or even any hay. We did put out range blocks for them during the toughest part of the winter from January 15 to March 15. They were on range land from November 1 to June 1. They calved on their own, as we usually never saw the calves until they were a few days old. We felt that if we had something to offer the commercial cattle industry that would improve commercial herds, our cattle would have to be able to out perform commercial cattle under the same conditions. This they eventually did, and we soon developed a very strong following for our Polled Hereford bulls in an area that had been dominated by Horned Herefords, Red Angus and Brangus.

Breeding Philosophy

We decided to build our herd on a diverse genetic base with an emphasis on performance in the traits important to the commercial industry. We purchased cattle and semen from four major lines of performance cattle: (1) Line Ones; (2) Prospectors; (3) Victor Dominos; (4) Maxs. Two of these were polled and two of these were horned. For about a decade, we ran separate lines of cattle prefixed as L1, L2, L3, and L4. The LX prefix means "Line Cross", representing that the animals were a cross of two or more of our straight lines.

The original herd sires we selected for these distinct lines were HHR L1 DOMINO 960 for our line ones, MSU PROSPECTOR 843 for our line twos, LSU VICTOR G37 for our line threes, and 5D&S MAX 223 for our line fours. These bulls can all be seen in our herdbook ad in the July, 1997 issue of the Hereford World.

When we reduced our herd significantly in the mid 1980s and moved to the state of Washington, we were forced to abandon our strict pattern of linebreeding and linecrossing.

Nevertheless, we have continued to follow the same basic philosophy in breeding seedstock. This meant maintaining a diverse genetic base, linebreeding to reach peaks of performance, then outcrossing to reach the next level, followed by more linebreeding of the elite outcrosses to take them to their peak of performance before outcrossing again. Linebreeding of genetically superior animals accentuates their advancement, but in three or four generations linebred animals reach a point of diminishing returns, and they need to be outcrossed to surge toward another peak. The top end of the linecrosses can then be linebred again to rapidly reach another peak before outcrossing again.

This pattern of interspersed cycles of linebreeding and outcrossing avoids the stagnation that besets the never-ending linebreeding programs and the slow progress of unpatterned outcrossing, which is the seedstock equivalent of unpatterned crossbreeding. The result of undisciplined crossbreeding has been the mongrelization of the nation's cowherd and the inconsistent beef that we market today. The Line Ones and the Prospectors of today, both heavily inbred, represent the stagnation that sets in when linebreeding is taken to diminishing returns. In the polled segment of the breed, we see the same thing in the heavily inbred Victor Dominos. We believe in a combination of linebreeding and patterned outcrossing about every fourth generation.

During our 25 years in the business, about 1/3 of the bulls we have used have been horned, about 1/3 have been polled, and about 1/3 have been scurred. We have bred about half of the bulls we have used. Most of our purchased herd sires have come from Michigan State University. We became acquainted with the MSU herd while Gary was teaching at the University of Michigan (1975-1982) and commuting to our ranch in Colorado.

Current Status

In 1996, we offered our entire herd for sale by private treaty, and we sold about 80% of our herd. This was because we could not keep up with the work of caring for the herd and could not get the help we needed. All our children, Dwight, David, Deanna, Gary, Jr., and Johnny, had married and moved away.  They return when they can and still help us, two live in Arizona, one in Las Vegas, NV and one in Montana, so returning is difficult and infrequent.

In 1996 I decided to concentrate on university teaching, research and writing over the next 5 to 8 years, then return to the cattle business through frozen embryos and the gradual rebuilding from the animals that were not sold.

After the 74th National in Ft. Worth, I had kind of a change of mind.  I realized that with our success at this event we had reached a level of success and recognition that few breeders are ever able to attain.  By being away from the breed for five years, we realized that we would lose most of that recognition, and we might never be fortunate enough to regain it.  Therefore, we developed an interim plan that would increase the number of cattle we had but still keep the numbers down.  This led to purchases of some new stock in 1997 and 1998.  Pretty soon things got out of hand and we had too many cattle again.  An added problem was severe arthritis in both knees.  I have had one knee joint replaced in 2001 but it got a severe infection in 2002 and surgery was done again on that knee.  I cannot walk farther than 100-200 feet or stand very long without severe pain, so continuing in the cattle business is very difficult.

We sold 75% of our remaining cattle in a summer private treaty in 2001 and in a auction sale in October of 2001. We still have as of January, 2003 about 12 registered cows, three recipient cows and a few heifers.  This is about the number we will continue with as long as we can get some help.  A young man from Eatonville, Martin Anderson, is providing significant help when needed, and we will continue in the cattle business as long as he someone like him is available to help.  The focus of our breeding program now is linebreeding Feltons 517 and MSU Optimum Z03, and on a line of cattle totally unrelated to these.  We are also using embryos from WNH Ms Optima 9401.

Below is a family photo taken July 4, 1999.  It includes everyone in our family except Gary, Jr., his wife and three sons who live in Parker, Arizona and who could not make it.

Pictured from left to right:
Sage, DeAnna and Bradley Iverson, Jonathan, Dwight, Bread Iverson, Angela, Sarah,
Reed, David, Ella, Betsy Ekstedt, Chris & Johnny, Nellie, Gary

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