‘The Final Sort’ sale, Midland Bull Test, McDonnell family
In 1962, the McDonnell family started Midland Bull Test with a small group of breeders. At the time, the idea of weighing and measuring cattle wasn’t looked upon favorably by everyone in the cattle industry, but the McDonnell family pushed forward, reaching 56 years of the test this year.
“We started on a little place on the other side of Billings, Mont.,” says Leo McDonnell, Sr., who notes his family moved to Billings to give the children a chance to attend a larger school. “I couldn’t get out of town fast enough.”
Starting the test
McDonnell’s father had a penchant for agriculture, working in a variety of facets of the industry, from feed sales to raising cattle and more.
“In the 50s and early 60s, I was pretty young, but they started looking at performance testing,” McDonnell explains. “We wanted to look at major genetic traits that were importance to ranchers economically, like birthweights, weaning weights, cow production, average daily gain and even some carcass traits.”
He continues, “It was pretty radical.”
McDonnell, along with Jack Cooper and Les Holden, both well-established, Hereford ranchers, Dale Davis, Sally Forbes and more were dedicated to improving the industry.
“It wasn’t met very favorably,” McDonnell says. “Most people still liked to sell cattle on looks, and a lot of it was marketing.”
While critics challenged the concept of bull testing, McDonnell adds, “My dad says that was what helped for their success – their critics. Of course, today, people who don’t performance test and record their data aren’t in the business, really.”
Several decades later, McDonnell said he began to feel the wear of the bull business and the ag industry.
“It was getting to a point where things were all about marketing,” McDonnell comments. “Genetics was second or third, and marketing was on top.”
At that point, he also notes his grandchildren were getting older, and he told his wife he was interested in efficiency testing.
“We started efficency testing because it adds huge value to the industry,” he says. “That put us back to the late 50s and early 60s again. We’re going to be outcasts again.”
For example, the poultry industry’s efficiency has allowed a 250 percent or more improvement, allowing efficiency gains.
At Midland Bull Test, bulls from across the country are gathered in Columbus, Mont., where they are “tested” in a way that puts them on an even playing field. Additionally, the test attempts to mimic a roughage environment.
Steve Williams, current owner of Midland Bull Test, says, “My primary role is to oversee the operation – feeding, doctoring, working in office, staying on top of health and performance, keeping in touch with consignors, following up with bull buyers and more.”
Traits like weight per day of age, average daily gain and numerous efficiency markers are compared.
The test provides the opportunity for high efficiency bulls to rise to the top.
On the range
Jim French, a customer of Midland, says, “I’ve had some of the best bulls that money can buy from Midland. It doesn’t happen very often. Maybe in a lifetime we hope to have a couple really good bulls.”
French explains they hope to continue to develop their cowherd through raising quality heifers, which comes from the best bulls.
“Midland really stands out,” he adds.
Felton Angus Ranch agrees.
“Midland Bull Test is an asset for our ranch,” says Jim Felton. “They do one thing and one thing only – bulls. That’s it. Whether it’s for a commercial or registered outfit, there’s something at Midland Bull Test for everyone.”
Felton Angus notes that nearly 60 percent of their bull battery has come from Midland Bull Test.
McDonnell says the primary role of a cow is to harvest the grass available on the ranch, but to do that most effectively, he says, “We’ve got to have the right genetics for the cow and the right genetics for the calf.”
“We also have to have the right genetics for the consumer if we want the industry to keep growing and be number one,” he adds.
Integrity and honesty are of utmost important for Midland Bull Test.
McDonnell also says, “I think 90 percent of bulls are bought from people, not necessary genetics. They go to bull sales because they trust the people selling bulls.”
This article was compiled with information from Episode 136 of “Special Cowboy Moments.” Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.