We began with the great unknown and a question -- what really is our end-product in this process we call ranching? Our family views raising commercial cattle as a handiwork but we had no idea of the feedlot growth, muscling or marbling that our genetics produced. To avail ourselves of new technologies that could help shape our herd, we first needed to know what our herd produced. So, in 1994, we made the plunge into retained ownership with the heavy end of our weaned steers.

The first harvest was sobering. The steers went 26% USDA Choice. "Sell the herd!" we thought. Could it be much worse for where we wanted to be? Could it be changed? How long would it take? At the least, we now knew the work we had before us.

To meet our objectives, we realized we needed to deal with our herd on an individual-animal basis. In addition to individual ID for each animal, we made use of EPDs for bull purchases and began tracking individual herd animal strengths and weaknesses for individualized artificial-insemination mating; information gleaned from our own ultrasounds of potential bull purchases, replacement heifers and feedlot cattle; and DNA parentage identifying herd outliers to further utilize or remove sires from the herd. Because of tracking we could see various specific genetic, processing plant, environmental and nutritional impacts that occurred along the way.

Have we been successful? At least by what our definition was, we have been. Using only the heavy end of weaned steers, which have been handled the most consistently over the decade, the graph below displays the progress possible.

In that same period, we were able to increase ribeye size/cwt., and carcass weight. We're also now delivering a product of 50% upper 2/3 Choice and above. In addition, our average harvest has been at a younger age and we have moderated our cow size.

Thirteen years after we began our improvement program, most of the packers are better set up to return data to producers. And the advent of various source-verification programs makes it possible to receive data without having to retain ownership of calves. Our quest (and yours) is much easier today.

To those individuals who have gone before us and prepared the way for us to be able to change a herd, those who shared their vision by finding ways to improve beef, those who dedicated their lives to the research that proved out those ways, and those who supported the research -- we thank you. None of what we have done would have been possible without you. And just think it all starts with an ear tag!

Editor's note: Art and Merry Brownlee's JHL Ranch was among nominees for the Beef Improvement Federation's (BIF) 2007 Commercial Producer Award. You can read more about JHL Ranch and other BIF nominees at:
www.bifconference.com/bif2007/Awardwinners.html or go to: beef-mag.com/mag/beef_dna/index.html.
-- Art Brownlee (www.jhlbeef.com)