Oct. 13, 2004 The Senepol breed of cattle – developed on the island of St. Croix – has been named "breed of the week" by cattlenetwork.com, a Web site ranchers across the United States use to buy and sell cattle, check markets and stay in touch with international industry news. Sadly, while the breed seems poised for a strong future around the world, its status back here on St. Croix is in doubt.
Senepol cattle, a distinctive brick-red color, contentedly chewing grass and dotting the landscape on St. Croix, are the result of many years of selective breeding N'Dama cattle from Senegal with Red Poll cattle from Trinidad. This breed has become desirable internationally in climates like ours, because of the traits resulting from this selective breeding: Senepol are known for being hefty and hardy; fertile; heat tolerant; "grass fed," meaning they flourish on naturally occurring forage; excellent for milk or meat; and gentle.
It might be hard to believe passing them by that these animals are not only unique to our island but also part of a high-tech export industry.
"Castle Nugent Farm at the moment has 190 full-blood Senepol cows on the island of St. Croix, plus 31 cows at Prime Rate Ranch, our partner in Florida, which are our embryo donors for the Australian, Central and South American markets," Enrico "Kiko" Gasperi, ranch manager, said.
Castle Nugent's Web site illustrates the sophisticated nature of doing cattle business these days. Links take interested parties through how the ranch can ship live animals (they've shipped as many as 92 at a time to as far away as South America); fertilized embryos, which can then be implanted into surrogate cows of any breed (and which they've sent as far away as Australia, their main market); and frozen semen.
The St. Croix story began in the 1600-1800s, when heat-tolerant cattle from Africa were imported to St. Croix to work the cane fields.
"Our cattle are as much a part of the history of this island as the European settlers and African slaves. The cattle were brought here from Africa at the time of the slave trade and the first settlements on St. Croix," Gasperi said.
Castle Nugent Farms has a wonderful photo on its Web site of the massive, long-horned African cattle pulling sugarcane carts in the 1880s.
According to the Senepol Cattle Breeders Association, by 1889, Henry C. Nelthropp's Grenard Estates on St. Croix had more than 250 purebred N'Dama cattle. His son, Bromley, is credited with beginning the development of the Senepol breed. In 1918, Bromley Nelthropp purchased a Red Poll bull from Trinidad. His goals were to improve the milking ability and fertility of the N'Dama and remove their horns.
The sons of this bull became the foundation stock for the Senepol breed, registered as a trademark name in the 1950s and exported since the 1970s.
Export from Castle Nugent has been steady yearly since the late 70s, first to the United States and later to Venezuela, Kiko Gasperi said. Recent concerns over "mad cow disease" temporarily closed exportation, but interest remains strong from Venezuela, Panama, Colombia and Brazil, he said.
"Our next shipment will be in Spring 2005 to Florida," he said.
The University of the Virgin Islands has a long working relationship with the Senepol producers on St Croix, according to Dr. Robert Godfrey, who directs the Animal Science program for the Agricultural Experiment Station on the St. Croix campus. "It began with the Cooperative Extension Service providing assistance in collecting performance records and has continued with the Agricultural Experiment Station conducting research to evaluate the breed," he said.
The university has also hosted two international symposia on the breed, the most recent in 2002, where researchers and industry professionals from the United States, Paraguay, Argentina, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico gave reports and scientific papers on the breed.
While interest in the breed has grown, the focus is shifting away from St. Croix. The Senepol Cattle Breeders Association has moved its headquarters to Georgia. Many more Senepol live elsewhere in the world than on St. Croix. The Nelthropps no longer raise Senepol. Oscar Henry, whose elegant spread on St. Croix's West End has been a familiar sight for years, is in ailing health and down to a few cattle. Hans Lawaetz, whose rolling hills near Carambola Resort are a picture-perfect backdrop for the red cattle grazing its sides, said he reduced his herd 15 years ago from 1,500 to 200 head.
That leaves the Gasperis, who have been ranching Castle Nugent since 1957. For several years Caroline Gasperi, who has continued working the ranch since the death of her husband Mario in the 1980s, has wanted to retire and has been pursuing the idea of designating the ranch as part of the federal park system. (See "Castle Nugent Farms Seeking Park Status"). Her dream is that the University of the Virgin Islands would run the ranch on what she hopes will be park land.
"My idea has been to give my herd to the University. It could stimulate tropical agriculture we used to have Peace Corps people train under us on our ranch for many years and promote university growth while serving as an attraction for the ranch and for tourism. We have good numbers of people coming here to see our cattle who would not visit this island otherwise," she said.
Gasperi said she would rather preserve the property, with its extensive Danish ruins, miles of shoreline and unspoiled reef, and she is deeply affected by the history of the cattle that have surrounded her on Castle Nugent all these years.
"Our cattle are as much a part of the history of this island as the European settlers and African slaves," she said.
She laments the fact that she cannot afford to simply give the land for a park, as was done by the Rockefellers on St. John.
But the process to sell the land into conservation rather than to developers who, as she puts it, would love to build casinos and condominiums on the property, is taking years. Her frustration mixed with hope was plain as she ticked off the nearly two years lost to an effort to work with The Nature Conservancy. She is now working with the Trust for Public Lands, with Delegate Donna M. Christensen's support, but the latest bill, which has passed the Resource Committee and the House of Representatives, is stalled before the Senate and that bill just calls for a study by the Park Service, she said.
"I am burning out, and I'm not sure this dream for our island will ever come true for it," she said.
"It would be a shame not to have any Senepol on St Croix," Godfrey said.
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