Beef industry loses performance pioneer: Sal Forbes

May 20, 2011
by WLJ
Beef industry loses performance pioneer: Sal Forbes

Sarah Paine “Sal” Forbes, 91, of Beckton Stock Farm just west of Sheridan, WY, died at her residence on March 28, 2011. Sal had deservedly earned a reputation as beef industry performance legend being one of the early proponents of performance testing. She was one of the founders of the Red Angus Association of America, was the association’s first executive secretary, and Beckton Stock Farm was the foundation herd of the Red Angus breed. Sal was also one of the early proponents of performance testing and her leadership is credited as being one of the truly important forces in getting the performance movement organized and promoted. She won nearly every significant award in the industry, capping off her career in 2008 by becoming the first woman to have her portrait hung in the Saddle & Sirloin Club. The latter award is considered the most prestigious in the livestock industry.

Before becoming a ranching legend, Sal grew up in an established New England family of some note. Her grandfather, Charles Jackson Paine, was the youngest Union Major General in the Civil War and, before that, he commanded as a Colonel a regiment of some of the first African-American troops organized. Prior to the war, he was an attorney, and when he returned to Boston after the war, he became a successful railroad businessman. He was also an accomplished yachtsman who successfully defended the America’s Cup three times.

Sal’s father, John Bryant Paine, served in the Spanish-American War. Her father and uncle both competed in the first modern Olympics which were held in Greece in 1896. Both won first places, with the other taking second place, in the two pistol-shooting competitions (they handed out wreaths instead of medals). After these early exploits, her father returned home to oversee the family’s investments and business interests. Sal’s mother was decorated for her volunteer efforts during World War I.

The youngest in her family of seven siblings, Sal attended Boston prep school and completed two years at Vassar College, a small, prestigious women’s liberal arts college at Poughkeepsie, NY, where she studied American History and Literature. However, she decided early on that “marrying Waldo Forbes was more to the point than doing four years at Vassar.”

After marrying Waldo in the fall of 1939, Sal moved to the ranch in January 1940 “sight unseen.” Sal recalled that Waldo used to kid her that he wanted to make sure that she was marrying him and not the ranch. The ranch, Beckton Stock Farm, had been owned by Waldo’s family since the late 1890s, and Waldo had taken over full-time management of it in the mid- 1930s. Although ranch life was new to Sal, she settled quickly into her new life, explaining, “I thoroughly loved it. I liked very much being in the middle of it and doing things. I also believe in learning things from the ground up. I was very much with my husband on all the round-ups and cattle work and a great many of the meetings, though (their) seven children—Ellen (deceased), Waldo E. ‘Spike’ Forbes, III., Charlotte ‘Cherry’ (Wunderlich), Julia (Waddington), Sarah, Edith ‘Elfie’ and W. Cameron ‘Cam’—kept me a little more at home. They of course were our main interest.”

Beckton Red Angus herd

During World War II, when the Chicago International was suspended, American Angus Association put all its resources into the National Western Stock Show (NWSS) in Denver hoping to cut into Hereford’s grip on the western market. Waldo was interested in Angus, but dissatisfied with selection measures of the day, he became convinced that more efficient methods of beef production could be achieved through scientific breeding methods. Waldo felt that the future of an efficient beef industry would be based on objective selection measures instead of the fads and extremes that were common in the show ring.

After attending the 1946 NWSS, Waldo and Sal Forbes made an appointment to meet with Colorado State University (CSU) faculty. According to one of those key geneticists, Dr. Stonaker, “the Forbes were interested in raising Angus cattle, but they had become disillusioned with American Angus Association (AAA) and the direction of the breed at the time. They expressed the desire for a distinctive approach to animal breeding that incorporated the latest scientific methods.” They had come to the right place at the right time; Stonaker was at the forefront of objective selection and performance testing, and according to Sal, he became “one of our closest advisors and helpers over many, many years.”

From that time forward, they started gathering carefully selected Red Angus cattle from reputable breeders, becoming the first Red Angus herd in the country. They worked very closely with Mr. Tomhave, then secretary of AAA. We also developed a small parallel herd of registered black Aberdeen-Angus to illustrate and evaluate a comparison of running the two herds, the black Angus on the basis of current breed practices; the Red Angus herd on the basis of his belief in factual evaluation. According to Sal, “We were avoiding the smaller, popular, show types of those years.” From this foundation, they bred cattle uninterrupted for nine years prior to the formation of the Red Angus Association of America (RAAA).

Through the communication and organizational efforts of Mrs. S. Taylor Mc- Daniel, it became apparent that other breeders were experimenting with the red cattle. The communications eventually led to the March 1954 meeting to consider forming an association for Red Angus.

About this meeting, Sal recalled: “I vividly remember our trip to Fort Worth, with very constructive stops and encouragement and reassurance at the University of Wyoming, with Paul Stratton, and then at Colorado State University with Dr. H. H. Stonaker. I do know their parting comments were ‘if you get even halfway there with your goals, you will have done remarkable progress.’ Their major goal was to implement the performance technology of the day as a requirement for registration.”

At the meeting were the seven founding families, but Joe Perry, a Texas cowboy of very modest means, was at first reluctant to join the association. According to Sal, “He was very adamant that the association stay grounded in the commercial cattle industry and was afraid it would ‘set the cattle on a pedestal’ like most associations.” Sally assured him, “that moving from specific commercial orientation would at least be over Waldo’s and my dead bodies.”

Waldo worked with fellow visionary George Chiga as the primary authors of the rules and regulations while Sal and Mrs. McDaniel were the primary authors of the constitution and by-laws.

On their trip home from Fort Worth, they were thrilled to make stops to report to their scientific advisors that their goals for the new association had been achieved. An association had been formed that incorporated compulsory inspection and submission of weaning weights. Waldo had also been elected president of the new association, and Sally became the first executive secretary.

In August 1954, Waldo wrote a concise summary of why the new association had been formed:

“In general then, the policy of the (Red Angus) Association is to discourage the more artificial practices in purebred cattle production, such as excessive fitting, and to place its faith instead in objective tests, consisting for the most part of comparisons within herds of factors of known economic importance and known heritability. By making it an integral part of the registration system, the Red Angus breeders feel that even faster progress can be made toward the ultimate goal of more efficient beef production.”

To this day, the above remains the founding principle and most important policy guiding the RAAA.

A life cut short

Waldo Forbes’s untimely death in December 1955 prevented him from fully seeing the fruits of his labor; however, through his wife Sal, Waldo’s dream and vi sion of a more efficient beef industry and a breed built on performance would be realized.

At the time of Waldo’s death, the Forbes family had grown to seven children ranging in age from one to 14 years. Armed with a will that had to be slightly stronger than the Rocky Mountains, Sal took over the management of a 15,000-acre ranch and picked up Waldo’s legacy of helping build a breed based on performance, all the while maintaining the raising of her family as her top priority. Sal credits Waldo’s Uncle Cam for a very succinct “lifeline” shortly after Waldo’s death: “Just keep making decisions; if even half of them are good ones, you are doing great.”

Relating the transition years later, Sal explains, “It was something that had to be done. Obviously, his absence was unbearable, but there was a ranch and seven children with which to be concerned. I had worked with Waldo as a partner, so it’s not as if I was unfamiliar with everything.” Robert de Baca, in his book “Courageous Cattlemen,” summed up the challenge Sal had accepted: “Sally was working in an area composed of three minorities—a new unaccepted breed, being a woman, and involved in the thenunpopular performance activity. Asked if she encountered problems because of those three reasons, Sally replied, ‘Most people bent over backwards to help me, but they all seemed to wonder why I was there—a woman doing unconventional things.’” Red Angus is unique in that there have typically been strong women sitting on the board of directors throughout its history, while most breeds remained exclusively male for decades to come. Although she refused offers to be nominated for president, Sal would serve on the board of the Red Angus Association of America over a span of four decades.

With Sal’s positive attitude of “aiming for the moon,” there was never any question about keeping the herd. She did recall, “We did have some questions about how we could best improve the performance of the Red Angus and increase numbers enough to support us.”

By the late 1960s, early ’70s, when the type change occurred to bigger, faster growing cattle, Sal’s Beckton herd was arguably the best Angus herd in North America, red or black. Interestingly, when Beckton was sitting at the top of one the passing “fads,” Sal went her own way and started putting downward pressure on birth weight. During this time, one very astute Red Angus and longtime black Angus breeder saw a heifer at Sal’s that would easily be national champion, but Sal refused to sell the heifer because the heifer had a 120-pound birth weight. When visiting about this with another breeder, the other breeder claimed he, “he could buy anything from anybody!” so the first breeder gave him a blank check to partner. He, too, came up empty handed. That heifer never saw a show ring, and this story illustrates everything you need know about doing business with the Forbeses.

By early 1950s, performance testing was barely known outside research cen ters and a small academic community. In the early history of performance testing, the field days hosted by Beckton Stock Farm may have been some of the most important events that helped popularize performance testing. Starting in 1957, two years after Waldo’s death, Beckton would host field days annually for the next 25 years. With Forrest Bassford, one of Sal’s closest advisors since the late ’40s, as the master of ceremonies, Sal intended the field days to be open forums for all of the beef industry. She sought out the best speakers from as far away as South Africa three times and encouraged “noholds-barred questioning.”

They also featured tours of non-Red Angus ranches and a local bull test where people got to see some of the first of Continental breeds’ half bloods in the country. The largest of these events was in 1969 when the field day drew over 1,500 people from over 23 states, Canada and three other continents.

One of the early performance organizations was Performance Registry International (PRI), of which Sal was a big supporter. Two of PRI very early Certified Meat Sires were Beckton bulls from the 1954 calf crop. Beckton would go on to have six Certified Meat Sires.

Perhaps one of Sal’s greatest contributions was during the organization of Beef Improvement Federation (BIF).

By mid-1960, a host of state, private, and breed performance programs had sprung up, so in January 1967, a meeting was set to form some sort of federation to keep standards and update various programs. At this meeting, an ad hoc committee was formed for such a purpose. As summer drew on, Sal released a lengthy, in-depth letter to the ad hoc committee about how she felt BIF should be structured and function. Frank Baker, federal extension specialist and catalyst behind BIF, credits “Sally with gelling the ad hoc committee’s thinking,” and the basic structure of today’s BIF organization can be traced directly back to that letter.

On Jan. 14, 1968, the formal BIF organizational meeting was held in Denver with Sal in attendance, and in 1976, Sal was honored by BIF with the Pioneer Breeder Award.

Commitment to youth One of Sal’s deepest interests was in the development of youth. She served on the board of the NWSS for approximately three decades, always keeping youth programs at the top of her agenda. In 1977, she started the Red Angus Stock Growers Contest at the NWSS, a contest that emphasizes leadership skills and cattle handling and knowledge over “ability to fit cattle.”

Sixty-five years of leadership

The Forbes family has had a tremendous impact on Red Angus and the beef industry. Oldest son, Spike returned to the ranch in 1968 after receiving a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Yale University, followed by postgraduate work in statistics and genetics at Cornell after three years overseas in the Peace Corps. Cam would also come home in 1975 to make his career in ranching after receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from Swarthmore College and Stanford University, respectively, and now manages the ranch.

Both Spike and Cam would serve as breed leaders, each serving on the RAAA’s board of directors, and as board vice presidents. They would also distinguish themselves through their gracious service on many committees and association projects ranging from the computer system, genetic predictions, and Total Herd Reporting.

As Spike and Cam took on more responsibility for the day-to-day management of Beckton, Sal had the free time to pursue other interests, becoming a strong environmental activist and deeply interested in alternative and holistic medicine.

She was involved in enacting some of the early regulation on the coal industry.

In a 1972 interview, Sal was asked what the ingredients were for a successful life. She replied, “First you have to live with yourself. There’s an excellent poem that Dr. Bonsma sent us quite a while ago, The Man in the Mirror, which is a rather sharply pointed poem that, in the final analysis, you live with yourself. Too many of us live with public opinion and are worried about what someone else will thin, especially critically. But sometimes, I’ve told my kids, no matter what you do, very few people are going to agree with you. Even less people are going to compliment you sincerely, though they may do it politely. You’ve got to stand on your own feet with whatever principles and standards and goals you set for your own life. If you are actually accomplishing anything worthwhile and trying aggressively to effect needed change, you are probably not going to get much approval, because you might be a little ahead of your time. Your efforts might not even be recognized until later as improvement.”

Thankfully, Sal lived to see the fruits of her labors. Against all odds, she fulfilled her husband’s dream of building a breed based on performance and scientific breeding principles. She raised a talented and successful family, which now includes eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. She has received every award the RAAA can bestow on a breeder, as well as being recognized by the BIF, CSU, Western Livestock Journal, Charolais Association, the Record Stockman, National Pedigree Livestock Council, the NWSS, and then being the first woman to have her portrait hung in the prestigious Saddle & Sirloin collection. Despite such success, most people knew Sal as the unassuming woman with a shirt pocket full of papers, a canvas carrying bag filled with more papers and other essentials for the day, a handheld tape recorder to record her thoughts, a flower behind her ear, and a probing question always on her lips. The world was a better and more colorful place having Sal Forbes on it.

The family will have “Celebration of Life” in Sheridan later this summer to honor Sal Forbes. — WLJ