>From the time he was a small boy growing up in a village in Germany's Black Forest, Michael Wurzburger's dream was to work with beef cows.
His odds weren't good. Particularly before the 1970s, there were few beef cattle in Germany. Even today, the majority of beef herds have less than 10 cows. Fifty cows is a big operation.
But Wurzburger made his dream come true. Today, he's the manager of a 2,000-head cow herd, Germany's second largest.
Eyes On The Prize It wasn't an easy journey. Wurzburger grew up working on his uncle's dairy. He taught himself English because he knew he had to go where the beef cattle were if he was to learn the realities of raising and marketing them.
His first step was to go to Canada in 1973 to work on a ranch. In 1975, he signed on with a cattle station in Australia's Outback. Two years later, he was in South Dakota, employed on an operation with a beef cow herd and a feedlot. He stayed there until 1979 when he returned to Germany.
Feeling qualified by now to follow his chosen career, Wurzburger failed to take into account that German farmers might not be eager to embrace his ideas. Over the next few years he was frequently disappointed with the reception to the knowledge he had gained about beef cattle management and marketing.
The concepts were foreign to German producers and, for a large part, remain so. Cattle feeding as practiced in the U.S., for instance, is non-existent; butchers who slaughter one or two head at a time are the rule rather than packing plants. In addition, most cattle are killed at 600-700 lbs., traditional feedlot entry weights in the U.S.
The first few years after going back to Germany, Wurzburger worked with dairy cattle due to the lack of beef opportunities. Ten years ago, he began a series of jobs with larger beef cow herds, but found the owners unreceptive to his innovative ideas, too.
When Wurzburger was in South Dakota he became an avid reader of BEEF. A few years ago, when I was editor of BEEF, he wrote asking if he could obtain back copies of the magazine and invited me to visit him and his wife Pia on a farm near Heidelberg.
She's a riding instructor, an accomplished horsewoman skilled in breaking, training and showing. He said they were willing to relocate anywhere in the world to further their careers with beef cattle and horses.
At the time of my visit to the Heidelberg farm, he was in charge of a large dairy herd owned by a German pharmaceutical firm. But, he was holding fast to his beef cattle dream.
It was just over three years ago that things turned for the better. After he placed an ad in Germany's leading agricultural publication announcing his availability and qualifications, a multi-interest corporation liked what they saw.
They hired him to manage a 2,000-head beef cow herd, 65 bulls and 400-500 replacement heifers on 7,500 acres. The operation is located in northeast Germany, 10 miles from the Polish border and 30 miles south of the Baltic Sea.
The herd was established in 1993 on what had been a 10,000-head dairy collective in the Communist East German regime.
But, East Germany and the dairy cattle are gone, replaced by the beef cattle Wurzburger prizes so highly. Four purebred herds - Black and Red Angus, Simmental and Limousin - are maintained to produce replacement heifers. Limousin bulls are also sold out of that herd.
Wurzburger's system produces three-way cross replacement heifers, bred to Hereford bulls for their first calf and to Limousin for subsequent calves. Long term, he's aiming for an average cow age of seven years. He's almost reached his goal of every cow producing a calf every 12 months.
Bulls are kept on pasture with cows during a two-month breeding season, about 130 cows per pasture. Up to 250 heifers are run per pasture, he says. Six weeks after bulls are removed, cows are pregnancy checked and opens culled.
Year-Round Calving Calving is year-round, but 50-60% are born in March-June, the remainder about equal each month. During inclement weather, close-up cows and heifers are brought to bedded pens in the former dairy buildings. Mothers and calves go back to pasture three days after calving.
In Germany, it's customary to leave bulls intact, but Wurzburger castrates at two months of age. Calves are sold for slaughter at 600 lbs. and dress an average of 56%. Spring-born calves reach that weight in seven months, while it takes nine months for the other calves to reach that weight, he says.
"All our calves go into baby food," he says. "It's the only way we can make money because we get twice as much as selling to butchers. We receive 10 marks (1 mark is about $1.55) per kilogram (2.2 lbs.) of carcass weight.
"People want natural foods. We can't use chemical fertilizers on pastures or medications in calves. If we treat a calf, it is out of the program and we sell it to someone else to feed," he says.
While he can vaccinate to protect against IBR, BRSV and PI3, Wurzburger says growth hormones or ionophores are out. "Our main health problem is parasites so we worm twice a year and use pour-on and eartags against flies."
About 5,000 of the 7,500-acre farm is in pasture, with a well in each pasture to supply water. Three treatment centers are located at strategic points in the pastures for handling health problems. In the spring, temporary fences ensure forage utilization.
"We take two cuttings from the pastures - wheat and rye grass with grass underneath - and it all goes into silage, so we have to buy all our hay," Wurzburger explains. "All our cows, bulls and bred heifers are kept outside on 1,500 acres of winter pasture and are supplemented with hay and silage."
Wurzburger figures a cow with a calf needs 26 lbs. of dry matter per day, plus protein and mineral. He's fortunate to have the land to keep the cattle outside year around.
"The largest herd in Germany is a few miles away and has 3,000 cows. They don't own their land and have a lot of restrictions placed on them in the lease," Wurzburger says. "They can't use winter pastures, for example, so they have to stable the cows then."
The farm has 65 horses - Quarter Horses, Appaloosa and Criollo, an Argentina breed - which Pia oversees and shows against the top horses in Germany.
Wurzburger learned the value of using horses to work cattle when he was in South Dakota and he didn't hesitate to introduce the practice to the 10 employees assisting him with the cattle. Initially, he says, they were skeptical. Now, however, they're true believers that horses are the way to work cattle.