Managing cattle in a changing industry
Ranchester – On the Padlock Ranch west of Ranchester, management practices are shifting to best match area climate, market demand and input costs.
One strategy the ranch has recently implemented is the practice of keeping replacement heifers on pasture throughout the winter as opposed to maintaining them in a feedlot.
Ranch manager Trey Patterson says they always look for winter feed opportunities. “We don’t achieve that with 100 percent of our replacement heifers, but this year we have 750 out on grass,” he says.
Of the heifers on grass, he says, “We found those cattle will gain about a pound a day until June, but they’ll really start to take off in early summer. We don’t breed them until mid-July, so they’ve got time to make up for being a lighter weight.”
In a study the ranch conducted, 800 head were wintered on grass and 1,200 developed in a feedlot. Those in the feedlot gained between 1.75 and 2.25 pounds per day and had a pregnancy rate of 91 percent. Those on grass came in at 88 percent bred.
“Our feed costs were well over a dollar a day per head for those in the feedlot, and only 25 cents per head per day for those on grass,” says Patterson.
“The implications of the three percent unit reduction in pregnancy rates are not many,” he says. “I know we were more profitable on the cattle we developed outside. Those open heifer input costs were low enough they were still profitable stockers. If I pump a lot of money into a heifer in the winter and don’t get her bred – that hurts.”
“It’s a business decision, based on cost and expected returns,” says Patterson of the strategy. “Our goal is to not feed mature cows any hay during winter. It’s been successful for us, and we’ve been able to manage it and keep cows in decent condition.”
He says calving in May and June is an important part of that management. “We’re not concerned with having cows with a body condition score of four in early spring because it’s likely they’ll increase to five and a half by calving in May.”
Patterson says the majority of their fed cattle are sold through a program called Country Natural Beef on the West Coast. After the calves are grown to 800 to 850 pounds on the ranch they finish at Beef Northwest in Portland, Ore.
The ranch has been in the natural market for about three years, and Patterson says it hasn’t been difficult. “It does require more management, and we have a system in place that allows us to document the animals that are treated and keep them separate. It’s been a fairly easy transition.”
“The fact that we have an end-point relationship is an assurance of natural’s value to us,” he says. “We’re not producing natural beef and hoping we get a premium – we have the cattle already committed to a program.”
Age and source verification through electronic identification (EID) tags was introduced to the ranch last year. “We’ve got every cow on the ranch identified with an EID tag, and each calf is identified when it comes into the feedlot and it’s managed individually in a software program,” explains Patterson.
To simplify things, the ranch has a system where early calves are tagged with their birth date and a specific ID, while all calves born after the start of calving season are assigned a generic tag at branding with the earliest calving date as their birth date.
To ensure accuracy, the ranch works with a third-party verifier that audits the procedure and can confirm the system works.
“We’ve been able to document a premium on fat cattle that are age- and source-verified,” says Patterson of the profits. “It fluctuates, but it’s significant, and is more than we’ve paid for the EID tags and the extra labor.”
“We can more easily document cull cows by getting a flag when they come through the chute that tells us that cow wasn’t raising a calf, and in the feedlot the EID tags allow us to track cost data for calves sold at different times of the year,” says Patterson. “Even though we sort calves multiple times to meet different market groups, we can track their costs to help us make management decisions.”
“There’s been a learning curve trying to make computer geeks out of cowboys, but it has been relatively easy to implement,” he says of the electronic system. “Reading tags and collecting data is not a hard thing to do, you just have to be intentional about it so the information becomes valuable.”
“Our focus right now is managing through a period of high costs,” says Patterson of the ranch’s future. “They change our approach to management, and times are new and changing – but that’s the fun of ranching and management. It’s our job to respond to the changing parameters in the industry.”
Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.