John Hughes of Hughes Cattle Co., Bartlesville, OK, remembers a university program almost 50 years ago where all the speakers, except the last one, described the progress possible through heifer and bull selection. The last speaker though, demonstrated how the production gains possible with 35 years of genetic selection could be had in a year. It had everything to do with brush management.

"Not to eradicate the brush," explains John, "but to manage the brush, utilize stocking density and grazing strategies to increase production... Land has always been too expensive for ag to pay for it, but if you can increase the production per acre on existing land, it can change the economics."

At the time, John and his father, A.M., were running the ranch primarily as a cow-calf operation. If John wanted to return to the ranch full-time they had to figure out a way to expand production.

Long story short, John has been applying herbicide to the ranch since 1958, along with using prescribed burning and other intensive grazing management practices to boost grass production, thereby increasing carrying capacity. In fact, John started his own aerial- applicator business back then in order to dilute the cost of spraying his own land, and to generate cash flow to expand his family's home operation to support him and his own family.

Genetics and Management Drive Production
"So our emphasis has always been toward grass production which increases beef production," John says.

More specifically, the focus here is on what John and his son, Robert, term the magical 100 days beginning between the first and middle of April. Turn cattle out then and you can net-gain 3 lbs./day; put 300 lbs. on them in 100 days.

That brings us to improving genetics, which cuts both ways at Hughes Cattle Co. On one hand, if genetics today were like those John started with, there's no way they could put 3 lbs./day on them for that 100-day period. On the other hand, those same genetics are making it tougher to find the lightweight calves of the quality they need at the time of year they need them.

"Ideally, we'd like to buy a 300-lb calf. Unfortunately, the quality of calf we need isn't usually available except in times of drought," John says.

The basic program here is buying calves weighing 450-500 lbs. in the late summer and early fall when calves are plentiful and prices seasonally favorable. Robert explains they'll sort these calves as many as five different directions based on weight. The heavy end will usually go to the feedlot by December. Another jag might find a home on winter wheat through the winter, then head to the feedlot. Most, however, will be marketed during one of three times during the summer.

Incidentally, sorting is one reason the Hugheses bought and installed scales beneath their chute a decade ago. That and the ability to dose cattle more precisely, as well as track treatment response by watching the weight of individuals.

Likewise, calf health and health-monitoring is one reason the Hugheses work so hard to get calves bunk-broke and eating early on. "Once they learn to eat, then don't, it's a good indication they may be running a temperature," Robert says.

Understand, the Hugheses do lots to settle new calves and get them acclimated during the 45 days or so of backgrounding before heading out to graze at one ranch or another. For instance, the Hugheses have misters set up beneath shades to entice walking, bawling calves to stop and smell the roses. They've also installed frost-free waterers below pond dams in order to help calves find the water and to have undisturbed, higher quality water to drink.

There aren't any self-feeders here, either. As John says, "There's no substitute for careful observation." With self-feeders there's no way of knowing when and how much feed is being consumed, or to know which calves are hanging back.

Besides documenting performance, the health of the calves overall, how long it took those needing treatment to respond and the like, the Hugheses also record cattle disposition.

"Those with a bad disposition are so much harder to handle," Robert says, explaining they defeat the investment made here in quiet, efficient, low-stress handling.

As an example, the Hugheses' facilities are designed with cattle sightlines and cattle flow in mind. They use rubber extensively to minimize the noise of metal parts. There's a matt of woven, used tires in front of the chute to provide cushion and footing.

"We used to not think that much about it if a calf jumped over the chute," John says. "But then we realized that if the calf was hurting and licking its wounds instead of grazing, his nutrition suffers, maybe enough that the bugs have a chance to get hold of him.

"Over the years we've learned tender loving care and animal comfort is uppermost to how successful you are backgrounding cattle... Good feed, good water and a comfortable place. You can't overcome poor handling and care with antibiotics," he says.

"Stocker cattle fit our country better than a cow-calf operation because winter-feed costs for cows are high because you have to supplement protein," John emphasizes. If the railroads had remained in the business of hauling cattle during and after World War II, the Hugheses probably would have switched to stocker cattle exclusively lots sooner.

"Historically, the Flint Hills and Osage were more stocker and cattle grazing country," John says. "When the railroads went away from hauling cattle after the war, and before the interstate highway system was built, we (producers in these parts) were more or less forced into the cow-calf business here, even though it wasn't the best use of our grass resources."

John bought his first stocker cattle in 1958, what he says were called "plain" cattle in those days. Back then, after grazing, most of them would go to the early commercial feeding yards in California.

In the 1980s, the Hugheses began phasing out their cow-calf herd. As they did though, their dual focus never wavered: increase beef production per acre by improving the range and improving cattle genetics. That focus remains, but they're considering necessary changes to accomplish the goals.

"We love Southeastern calves but, let's face it, with truck costs at $3.10/loaded mile and rising, and a 28-hour trip between here and Lake Okeechobee or Ft. Meyers, FL, where we buy a lot of cattle, we're probably going to have to change," John explains.

Between fuel, distance and improved genetics, Robert emphasizes, "It's getting almost impossible to get calf weights backed up to the place we need to really utilize our grass."

In order to examine the possibilities, the Hugheses are involved in an innovative pilot study with a livestock-market owner and a feedlot. The notion is each partner in the arrangement purchases an equal share of ownership in the calves, pays one another for their services, and then splits any profit or loss once the cattle are marketed after the feedlot. The arrangement seeks to capitalize on the expertise of each entity and the ability to select cattle for specific markets earlier in the production process, while also leveraging geographic efficiency.

"If the guy buying the cattle is going to retain ownership, it stands to reason he's going to be paying attention to what he's buying," John says. The same goes for the all partners involved.

"It also solves another challenge for us, which is marketing," John explains. "I'm not an expert at it and there's no way to outguess the market. Selling fed cattle on a value basis, year in and year out, I think that's the best we can do. This is the kind of alliance that makes sense to us."

Peering down the road, John believes the future of the stocker business is anchored more tightly with corn prices than ever before.

"Cheap corn isn't a friend. It may seem like it for those selling stocker cattle, but long-range it's the enemy of the grass rancher because grass will always be cheaper than corn," John says. Plus, the cheaper the corn, the more competition there is from feedlots for stocker-weight calves.

More concerning, John says, "Let's say ethanol production and other alternate corn uses boost corn up to $3/bu. or more, grass would be worth more than we ever thought and would play a larger role in the production system. Conversely, if corn is going to knock up and down around $2, and if genetic performance increases weaning weights another 50 lbs., I don't know there would be much room for growing the stocker industry."

A similar concern revolves around manpower. "I think a limiting factor to people being in the stocker business is having help good enough to do the job consistently. We're very fortunate to have good help here."

However the stocker specifics pan out down the road, John and Robert are convinced the same resource that brought them all this way will lead them forward, and the resource is grass.

The National Stocker Award (NSA) competition was divided into three categories: Backgrounding/drylot stocker (feed-based); Fall/winter stockering (forage-based); and Summer stockering (forage-based). A single winner was chosen in each category, and the overall NSA winner selected from these finalists.

As overall winner, Hughes Cattle Co. receives $10,000 cash from Elanco Animal Health, along with an expense-paid trip to the 2007 Cattle Industry Convention in January.

Triple Heart of Wanette, OK, (winner of the backgrounding/drylot category), and Doug Rogers of Collins, MS, (winner of the fall/winter category), each receive a $2,500 cash prize from Elanco.

Profiles of these other two operations will appear in future issues of BEEF Stocker Trends.