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Working Relationship: Developing relationships helps through drought

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Forming good relationships with the neighbors can make a difference on a ranching operation, especially during times of drought. James Sewell, ranch manager of the TA Ranch in Carbon County, discussed the benefits of forming those relationships during a recent cattle conference in Torrington.

“The relationships we have formed with our neighbors were the number one thing that got us through the drought last year,” Sewell said. 

The Angus cow-based ranch is a typical mountain ranch, with deeded land, irrigated acreage and leased grazing land. Their area receives an average of 10 inches annual rainfall. 

“When we are in a drought, I look at it as an opportunity to improve our management at the TA Ranch,” Sewell said. “My motto is ‘It is what it is.’ I like to deal with reality and what’s on the ground. We have to take responsibility for what happens, even when Mother Nature throws us a curve ball.” 

Reaching out

When Sewell became the ranch manager, one of his first tasks was making it a point to meet and talk with each neighbor he would be working with. 

“By talking to each of the neighbors and getting to know them, it kept the relationships from becoming adversarial. They have actually become very beneficial relationships,” he said. 

Sewell drew upon the knowledge his neighbors had of the ranch to make important management decisions. One of his neighbors, who managed the ranch previously, was able to provide some pointers and guidance from his own observations. 

“We have a good, working relationship now,” he said. “He helps look out for things on the ranch that we might have missed.” 

Sewell said typically the neighbors are very willing to point out things that have been done wrong in the past. 

“I’m humble enough to talk to them and listen to what they have to say,” he said. “I appreciate the positive feedback they provide.”

Because of the relationships he forged, Sewell said he was able to negotiate with the neighbors for more irrigation water, which helped the ranch produce more much-needed hay. He was also able to rent some additional grass from some of the yearling operators who marketed their calves early, which helped to alleviate costs.

“I have found communication is so important,” he said. 

Management plans

After he arrived last April, Sewell was almost immediately aware there was going to be a drought. 

“With the snow-pack at less than 50 percent at the start of the irrigation season, I made the decision to put what water we had on our best ground. I didn’t try to spread it around. We put the water on our best soil and ended up with a 64 percent hay crop,” he explained.

Sewell said they harvested twice the amount of hay by making that decision compared to another dry year in 2002, when the water was spread over all the acres.

One of his first tasks after taking over management was developing a grazing plan. The ranch has three separate herds of cows that rotate through deeded and leased grazing land. The grazing plan included each pasture the cows were supposed to rotate through and dates they were to be moved in and out. 

“It seems like a simple task, but it was something that ranch didn’t have before,” he said. “I felt we could use it to better plan for additional feed if we were going to be short,” he added. 

Because of the drought, Sewell said he made a conscious decision to graze some of the pastures harder last year and not leave much residue. 

“Those pastures will be deferred until this fall for grazing,” he noted.

By early spring, Sewell knew he would need additional feed resources based on how quickly the cattle were rotating through the pastures. 

“We had a record hay crop in 2011, so we had 3,000 tons of hay left over,” he continued. “However, after testing this hay, it was a disappointing five percent crude protein, which is not much better than barley straw, and 47 percent total digestible nutrients.”

Sewell said he felt fortunate that he had tested the hay early enough, that he had time to explore his options and develop a plan for how he would get the cows through the winter.

Looking at the cows, Sewell said most averaged a body condition score of four. 

“I was glad to have the test results from the hay, because it made me realize we needed to provide the cows with more protein to improve their body condition through the winter,” he said. 

Sewell said he purchased alfalfa to stretch the AUMs and provide the cows with some much-needed protein. 

Supplementing weaned calves

At weaning, the calves came in an average of 75 pounds lighter than usual, Sewell continued, a weight that was too light for their contract. 

To add weight, Sewell said they supplemented the calves with cake each day, in addition to meadow grazing. When they still weren’t gaining enough, they increased the amount of cake fed, in addition to some high quality grass hay. 

By weighing the calves every few weeks, they were able to meet the weight of their contract. 

“It was a challenge to get them to the right weight for the contract,” Sewell said. “We had to constantly redo our feeding calculations.” 

Looking ahead

Sewell figured the drought has cost him an extra $60 to $70 per cow in extra grazing, cake and alfalfa.

Looking ahead to 2013, Sewell made the decision to sell all of their heifer calves because of the uncertainty of whether 2013 would bring another drought. If he would have retained these heifers, he figured $1,330 would be invested in each heifer by June 1. 

“If there was good moisture, we could have sold them as bred heifers and made money, but it was just too uncertain,” he explained. 

Sewell also reduced the main herd, eliminating all non-producing cattle. He sold all the replacement heifers, open cows and extra bulls. Horses not used in day-to-day operations were also sold, he added. 

“I basically sold everything that wouldn’t write a check in 2013,” he said. 

His plan at this point is to make more use of the meadows on the ranch by grazing them earlier, through May and June, to give the native pastures more time to recover. 

As soon as the cows are pregnancy checked, Sewell also plans to sort the cows by age, so he can easily sell the older cows and house the late-calvers off the ranch if conditions force him to. 

“It will provide me with more flexibility,” he said.

Employee relationship

 TA Ranch manager James Sewell shared with his fellow beef producers how hard it was to keep his employees positive during last year’s drought. 

“I have no doubt I lost some good cowboys because of the drought,” he said. “They just couldn’t handle the stress anymore. The grass was gone, and it got to the point where it was hard to keep the cattle inside a fence.” 

“When I look at employees, attitude is number one,” he said. “You can teach them anything, but if they have a bad attitude, it is like poison and it poisons the whole team.”

As they went through the drought, Sewell said he evaluated each employee’s skill set to determine what they were good at and what they weren’t. He realized heading into fall that they were going to be managing a set of weaned lightweight, stressed calves that no one had experience with. 

“I went out and hired someone who was experienced working with that type of calves, and it made huge dividends for the ranch,” he said. 

“What was important for me to realize was the situation we were in and figuring out how to work with it,” he added. “I had to make a plan and deal with it.”

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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