Jose Vitor Leme rides Dakota Rodeo/ Julie Rosen/Clay Struve/Chad
Berger’s Smooth Operator for 92.5 during the 15/15 Bucking Battle
round of the 2019 Columbus PBR Unleash the Beast.
Photo by Andy Watson

Big Bulls, Bigger Bucks

BY DOUG HARE

Some bulls are bred to buck, that is, to drop, kick and spin in an erratic manner that makes it hard as hell to ride them for eight seconds. The cowboys who attempt to ride them are still being bred the old-fashioned way.

North Dakota-native Chad Berger would know. After a storied rodeo career, Berger says he “found his passion” raising bucking bulls and has since gone on to become the eight-time PBR Stock Contractor of the Year. In our conversations over a three-day bull riding event in Billings, Montana last April, Berger is laconic and soft-spoken, but candid about what goes into raising a successful bucking bull.

Former-PBR-athlete-turned-contractor Cord McCoy would know a thing or two as well. While he considers Chad Berger Bucking Bulls to be like the Yankees and his own operation to be more like a farm team, he is already producing bulls like 51 Viper, whose bucking ability as a three-year-old could command a six-figure price if he sold to the highest bidder.

Berger, whose father was a rancher who raised bulls himself, has about 350 crossbred Brahman bulls split between his ranches in Mandan, North Dakota and Henrietta, Oklahoma, where the milder climate makes for easier calving and a better locale to winter his cattle. Between 150 and 200 of them are mature enough to compete in top-tier events nationwide.

Like McCoy, in his younger days Berger competed in every rodeo event there is. When asked about the difference between bull riding and saddle bronc riding, he cracks a wry smile and says he should have concentrated more on saddle bronc riding because he could have had a longer career. “Bronc riding is more about figuring out the timing. Bull riding is different; it’s harder on the body.”

Photo by Stanislav Honzik

“Some of the best bucking bulls have the calmest demeanor, It’s not about how agitated they get, it’s really about if they can perform under pressure, just like the cowboys.” -Cord McCoy

In 1992, 20 bull riders ponied up $1,000 each in order to split from the traditional rodeo circuit and form the Professional Bull Riders, Inc. as a standalone circuit. Ever since then, the most extreme Western sport has been gaining more attention and more fans—both for its cowboys and for its bovine athletes.

Today the most dominant bulls in the PBR have their own fan clubs. At PBR events you can buy stuffed animals, trinkets and tokens of your favorite bull. One of those infamous bulls, nine-year-old Smooth Operator, is one of Berger’s rankest and is a contender to win a World Champion title even in his relatively old age. Most bulls come into their prime bucking conditions during their fourth and fifth years,
Smooth Operator being twice that age.

Before the first night of competition, PBR entertainer Flint Rasmussen, unprompted, tells me the bull he most wants to see buck is Smooth Operator. “I think he caught a second wind if you look at his career, and he seems like the older guy now so I’m rooting for him this year.”

The last time Smooth Operator was ridden for the full eight seconds was in 2018 at the Atlantic City Invitational, when former World Champion Cooper Davis rode him for 93.75 points (out of a possible 100) in what Berger considers the greatest ride in PBR history. PBR arena announcer Brandon Bates agrees: “It should have been a 97 point ride. The judges missed that one. That’s what makes [Smooth Operator] so fun to watch; if anyone can figure him out, you might be seeing one of the highest scores ever in our sport.”

Bulls are only getting ranker. With the introduction of enhanced breeding techniques like artificial insemination, egg collection, in vitro fertilization and using sperm that only produces bull calves, the quality of bucking bulls has increased dramatically in the last 25 years. In 1995, the first year PBR kept records, cowboys finished their rides 46 percent of the time; in the past three years, the qualifying ride rate has hovered around 29 percent.

“If you watch the World Finals Events from the beginning days of PBR, well, I’d say 90 percent of those bulls wouldn’t even be able to make the cut here in the Billings event,” said Berger on an early April morning in the stockyard where his bulls had rested overnight.

Eight-time PBR Contractor of the Year Chad Berger in his element as he tends to his bulls before the PBR Billings Invitational. Photo by Joseph T. O’Connor
Raising bulls is a family affair. Cord McCoy, his wife Sara and daughter Tulsa all help out with the daily chores on their ranch outside Tupelo, Oklahoma. Photo courtesy of Sara Best-McCoy

Berger seems at ease in the yard. He strolls the corral pointing out his bulls and describing their unique personalities, and then Beaver Creek Beau, son of the legendary Bodacious, jaunts over for a pat on the head like a one-ton golden retriever.

In 2003, PBR and a group of stock contractors acquired a DNA registry formerly known as Rodeo Stock Registry, a database that would become the foundation of American Bucking Bull Inc. In just over a decade, a genetic registry of 20,000 has grown to nearly 200,000 cows and sires.

The semen of champion bucking bulls can sell for thousands of dollars per straw—about one-tenth of a teaspoon—making them valuable even past their competition days. But Berger and most other livestock contractors believe the cow’s DNA, temperament and nurturing methods could be more important than the role of the sire’s genetics, not so much based on hard science but on personal observation.

ABBI also developed stand-alone events in which young bulls, yearlings to 3-year-olds, are judged on their bucking with just a flank strip or 23-pound dummy attached that releases after a few seconds. The combination of the database and events for younger bovine athletes lead to bigger paydays and the explosion of bucking bull breeding programs across the country.

In the old days of bull riding, the biggest payday a bull could hope to earn was $20,000 for being selected World Champion Bucking Bull. Nowadays the bulls, as much athletes today as the riders themselves, can earn up to $500,000 between the ages of 2 and 4, competing at ABBI events—before they even hit their prime and start competing in PBR sanctioned events.

Lachlan Richardson gets a re-ride on Cord McCoy/Big Sky Bulls LLC’s Viper during the first round of the Las Vegas PBR 25th Anniversary Unleash the Beast World Finals. Photo by Andy Watson

“Everybody knows you can’t take a horse out of a pasture and do something to him that will make him win the Kentucky Derby. But somehow people seem to think you can take any bull and do something to them that will make them perform at the PBR level.” -Flint Rasmussen

Brger isn’t much a fan of letting his younger bulls buck at these events, preferring to let his bulls mature and develop without too much additional stress, slowly introducing them to the lights, pyrotechnics, and loud music of PBR events that resemble monster truck rallies more so than traditional rodeo.

Even without extensive practice from an early age, Berger can spot the ones with the most potential.“You can tell the ones that are more alert than the others—always keeping their eye on ya’, always wondering what’s going on, them ones that really pay attention to ya’—those are the ones that usually end up being the best bucking bulls,” he said.

Two recurring themes arise when the cowboys most familiar with bull riding try to dispel the myths behind the chute gates. The first one is that mistreated bulls will become mean and that the meanest bulls will be the hardest to ride.

“Everybody knows you can’t take a horse out of a pasture and do something to him that will make him win the Kentucky Derby,” said Rasmussen before heading off to apply his iconic face paint as the world’s most recognizable rodeo clown. “But somehow people seem to think you can take any bull and do something to them that will make them perform at the PBR level.”

Cord McCoy, another storied bull rider who raises bulls on his ranch in Lane, Oklahoma, agrees. “Some of the best bucking bulls have the calmest demeanor,” McCoy said. “It’s not about how agitated they get, it’s really about if they can perform under pressure, just like the cowboys.”

The other misconception comes from the detractors who see riding bulls as form of animal cruelty: “There is no animal that I know that’s treated that gets treated better than a bucking bull. They get the best diet, best exercise routines, and they get taken to the vet at the first sign something is wrong,” Berger said.

When I ask him about the unexpected death of his prize bull Pearl Harbor, he chokes up a little and clears his throat before explaining how an autopsy revealed a blood clot from a neck injury had gone to his brain, killing him instantly. Seeing the raw emotion from a stoic cowboy, it’s easier to see that the best bucking bull contractors treat their cattle like their own children, not because they are major investments, but because they develop emotional attachments to their overgrown pets.

“If you think the flank strap is wrapped around their testicles, I suggest trying that on yourself, pull it tight, and see how high you can jump,” Berger said with a quick laugh. “You’d be lying on the ground and so would they. It’s just a cotton rope tied tight enough so it won’t fall off, a foreign object on their hindside that gets them to kick a little higher and buck a little harder.”

Will the selective breeding of bulls continue to breed superbulls that are ever-increasingly hard to ride? While that is a possibility, Berger thinks we’ve reached a plateau. “If the bulls got any bigger and stronger, they might just buck themselves right in two.”

Despite the future of these bovine beasts, one thing will remain the same—they will continue to be afforded the reverence and affection that world-class athletes deserve.

Doug Hare is a staff writer and the distribution director for Mountain Outlaw magazine.