Big Red’s Nebraska Roots


by Kerry Hoffschneider

Big Red wasn’t known as “Big Red” because of his deep, cherry red color until he became famous in the show ring.  Extremely famous, in fact, when the 1,050-pound Hereford became the first polled Hereford to win the Grand Champion Steer at the National Western Stock Show in Denver in 1968.  After winning, Big Red was purchased by the Denver Hilton Hotel for $10.35 per pound.

“We want the best,” George Mandis, Hilton manager at the time, said when asked about the record price, $2.30 over the previous year’s record, in an American Hereford Association press release.

Big Red earned this “best” standing after being raised by some of Nebraska’s salt-of-the-earth cattle ranchers and farmers – the Helms family of Holbrook.  Clarence Helms had worked for Orville Kuhlman of North Platte in the early 1940s where he gained his interest in Hereford cattle.  In 1944, he married Lois and entered WWII.  His first purebred purchased in 1948 was a horned Hereford mated to a polled bull.

In the 1950s, the partnership of H.F. Haussler and C.W. Helms bred and fit cattle and traveled to many national shows via boxcar.  Then, in 1960, a dispersal of the partnership made it possible for Clarence to purchase what is now known as the home place.  Clarence and Lois had four boys devoted to their efforts at this home place – Lanny, Randy, Dick, and Bruce.

“I just happened to be the right age at 17 years old to show the calf as a senior in high school.  It was my first time at the Denver Stock Show and obviously the most memorable,” Randy Helms humbly said.

“He, Big Red, was a day old when we bought him from the Lexington Livestock Sale Barn for $46.  We bought him to be one of our nurse calves.  We would pen the calves off at night if we needed milk in the mornings,” Helms said.  “He just had a charisma.  We liked the looks of him and then dad thought he would probably make a good show prospect.  We started by showing him at the Nebraska State Fair when he only weighed 900 pounds, so he was not a Champion finished steer at that time.  But he was perfect at the stock show.”

Big Red stood out against the more than 700 other calves of all breeds at the National Western Stock Show in both the Junior Show and Open Class.

“Dad told me in the final drive he knew Big Red was going to be the Champion.  But he also said, ‘I am not going to tell you how.’  It’s just a premonition of some sort he had,” Helms recalled.  “Dad always had a natural eye for picking out the good ones and realizing potential.”

Everything that ensued after Big Red’s big win is a whirlwind of memories for Helms.

“We had numerous radio interviews out there.  I guess I was a bit of a celebrity who did not realize at the time the magnitude of what had happened.”

The rest of the family came out for the auction portion of the event.

 

Big Red’s Big Trip…

 

“After the show and record-setting sale, the Denver Hilton arranged a trip for Big Red to New York City to display him there at the Hilton Chain Hotels.”

There were no stock trailers at that time, Helms recalled – just stock racks and straight trucks.  They took an old GMC pickup with a slide-in stock rack and loaded Big Red up in March to take him to the Denver International Airport.

“We just backed up to a curb and he just stepped out like a horse and unloaded.  He had quite the personality, kind of like a pet,” Helms said.

From there, they loaded Big Red on a cargo jet where they had built a container for him to ride in, much like shipping racehorses, Helms explained.

“I got to ride in the cockpit with the pilots to New York.  When we got there, they had a racehorse van load the steer and I grabbed a cab and went to the Hilton Hotel.  That was scary.  I had never been in a big city and I was by myself.  My parents had already driven home with the pickup.  I remember I had to change cabs.  But I ended up at the Hilton, so it all turned out . . . All the while at the Hilton, Big Red never made a mess at all.  He was quite a gentleman.”

Arrangements were made for him to stay at a horse farm outside New York.  Next, Big Red would make a debut at the White House Rotunda where they had a big, red carpet laid out just for him.

“At the White House they presented Big Red to an orphanage in Oxen Hill, Maryland.  There were dignitaries there like Senator Carl T. Curtis and Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman.  I remember the kids tried to feed Big Red milk and cookies,” Helms recalled.

The children’s home kept Big Red for ten years and then the Polled Hereford Association arranged for him to come back to the Denver Stock Show one last time to be displayed.

“Then they harvested him and hung his hide in the Hall of Fame in Kansas City because he was the first polled Hereford to win a National Championship,” Helms said.

 

More Great Cattle to Come…

 

Big Red wasn’t the end of the Helms family raising great cattle.  Helms said they had a few Champion Sale Bulls at the Denver Stock Show in years proceeding and showed steers in Kansas City, Chicago, and Denver too until they were out of 4-H.  In the early 1990s, they had a pen of three spring yearling polled Hereford Bulls that won Division Champion.  Helms said they were full embryo brothers with uniform EPDs (expected progeny differences).

“That really made the difference.  They judged phenotype and the EPDs were part of the scoring.”

The family always stayed with Herefords until Clarence dispersed in the mid-1990s.  One brother pursued the Gelbvieh business and became quite successful, Helms said.

“I bought two cows from dad’s sale and did embryo flushing to build a herd.  I also purchased a group of heifers from John Oswald of Hutchinson, Kansas.”

In 2002, Helms held a female production sale and rebuilt with artificial insemination throughout the next few years.  He offered this entire herd through Handel Marketing Services in 2005 when all the bred females were sold to Ravine Creek Ranch of Huron, South Dakota.  All the 2005 born heifers were retained to build his current herd.

Currently, Helms Polled Herefords (HPH) females are serviced by senior herd sires from Upstream Ranch, Schroeder Bros., HPH raised sires, Ernst Herefords, Bar JZ Confidence, and EF Final Race.  Their niche is in private treaty Hereford bull sales and they promote cattle raised only on forages and cubes.

“I guess it’s in my blood,” Helms said about staying with Herefords and the cattle industry overall.  “I am the second generation and my nephew Cody is the third generation and he has some cattle with me.  Cody’s boys are fourth generation and are starting to show right now.  That’s just what we do every day and we hope to keep it going.”

Oh, and what did the family do with the $10,867.50 in prize money from Big Red’s achievements back in 1968?

Helms said Clarence had the boys split the money four ways.

“I bought a 1969 Chevelle for $2,700.  That was something to pay cash for a new car at my age.  Still wish I had that car,” Helms said.

Regardless, Helms pointed out, he does still have the Herefords.

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