September 17, 1996, was a dreary day for managers Maurice and Steve Grogan. The Stillwater, MN, father/son team was up earlier than normal, prepping for the long-haul trucks that would transport the 350 cows they'd developed over the past 38 years. The herd was being shipped cross-country, two states away, to more spacious, less developed range near Saratoga, WY.
Despite efforts to keep the Hereford and Red Angus herd on the 2,700-acre Kelley Land and Cattle pastures in Minnesota, the Twin Cities metropolitan area continued to encroach on their operation. In fact, they're scheduled to lose 950 acres of the operation to a new park reserve.
The lesson: Scenic mountainous areas of the West are not the only land parcels where development is squeezing ranchers out of business.
In Minnesota, farmland is turning into homes and shopping centers at the rate of 24,000 acres a year. That's 66 acres a day or an acre every 22 minutes, says Lee Ronning, executive director of 1000 Friends of Minnesota, a growth management organization that helps preserve farmland and build livable communities.
Most of Minnesota farms being plucked out of production for development are in the seven-county metro area. Census figures, Ronning reports, show that metro area farms declined 21% from 1982 to 1992, from 5,662 farms to 4,489 farms.
Kelley Land and Cattle-Minnesota - owned by Cynthia Kelley O'Neill - is part of that exodus, but just a part. Like many other businesses, its found a creative way to restructure its standard operating procedures, and ultimately become even more involved in the cattle business.
Kelley Wasn't Caught Off Guard With housing developments popping up around them faster than dandelions on a spring lawn, it was inevitable they'd soon feel the crunch from building development. So in the mid-1980s, Kelley O'Neill, Cynthia's son, along with four other family members, began an aggressive search to find a new location in Wyoming where they could eventually move the Minnesota herd.
Wyoming was a natural choice since O'Neill had two brothers already living there. "We also liked the land availability and the lack of population," O'Neill says. "Also, annual cow supplemental feed costs are less in Wyoming than Minnesota. And, we've now found that our annual per cow labor cost is four times higher in Minnesota than Wyoming."
By 1990 they'd put together three Saratoga, WY, ranches - under the Kelley Land and Cattle-Wyoming name - with 48,000 BLM, Forest Service and deeded grazing acres. In addition, they have 4,000 acres of irrigated hay and pasture. Kelley O'Neill is president of both the operations. However, he spends most of his time on the farming and sheep side of the business located in Rushford, MN.
In 1993, O'Neill hired University of Minnesota animal science graduate Mike Crimmins, who became full-time manager in 1995, to run the newly acquired ranches.
"When we got the Minnesota herd here in 1996 we were already increasing our existing numbers to get fully stocked," says Crimmins. "In the spring of '96 we had 1,000 cows. By that fall we'd increased another 1,000 cows by adding the Minnesota herd along with some we bought from Texas, Montana and Idaho.
"Now, we're fully stocked at 2,000 mother cows. Plus, we can run 1,000-1,200 yearlings," he says.
Acclimate To High Country "When the Minnesota cows arrived here we ended up losing three to brisket disease, or high altitude disease," Crimmins says of the 6,800- to 8,000-ft. elevation at the Wyoming operation. "The Minnesota cows now had to walk farther for grass. Also, they didn't seem to want to trail well with our other cattle. Initially, 90 percent of the (Minnesota) herd was in back.
"We had problems with some of the bigger straight Herefords in the mountains, too. They were a biological type that didn't fit well in the Wyoming environment. We culled about 30 because they failed to maintain body condition and conceive," he says. The Hereford/Red Angus crosses did okay.
Now, the herd is about 50% Red and Black Baldie, Red Angus and Gelbvieh. Normally, the ranch retains ownership on cattle through two feedlots in Wiggins and Fort Morgan, CO.
Kept Minnesota Connection Long distance ranching isn't popular, but Kelley Land and Cattle has found a creative way to continue using the lush, green grass of Minnesota to its advantage. Although they no longer winter cattle - except a few cows - on the rolling hills at the Stillwater location, they're using it to develop heifers from their Wyoming herd.
"We've changed the whole operation to grass and need larger groups to rotate through our 55 pastures," says Maurice Grogan. "We can do a better job of utilizing our grass with larger groups of stockers and heifers, not cows."
Since subdividing pastures and using shorter duration, more intensive rotational grazing, O'Neill says it's a better fit for yearlings. "Higher forage quality would be wasted on strictly a cow-calf enterprise."
Right now, they're running two groups, about 500 head each, on 1,600 acres. Cattle are moved every three to four days and pastures are given a 30-day rest. Pastures are only grazed about 15 days a year.
Those pastures, overseeded with red clover, are producing terrific gains, Grogan claims. Steers are averaging up to 2.56 lbs./head/day while heifers are up to 2.2 lbs./head/day on a 150-day grazing period.
Heifers Travel To Minnesota In January, 1998, Grogan received all 818 light heifer calves (380 lbs. each), born in May-June, from the Wyoming ranch. "We sorted off the heaviest end and developed and then bred 315 of those in July," says Grogan. "We've continued to run them on grass and we'll ship them pregnant back to the Wyoming ranch in November to replace about 300 cows being culled from the main herd."
The rest, about 500 head, will be marketed as open feeders. Another 200 purchased from Missouri will be developed and sold as bred heifers.
It's a system that Crimmins and the Grogans believe works well. "It takes away one group of cattle we don't have to put in a grazing rotation," Crimmins says. "There's also less labor involved because we don't have to artificially inseminate here. Besides, they're set up for it in Minnesota."
In addition, Crimmins thinks that by sending heifers back to Minnesota, they develop better with better grass. "Here, we'd have to supplement. In Minnesota, grass alone with almost no supplement works," he adds.
"We hope we're being efficient and saving money, too, despite trucking costs," says Crimmins. "Even though our labor costs will be transferred there, we think the confined area in Minnesota is less labor intensive than here. Also, the better grass and higher gains there(Minnesota) should benefit both our operations."
Trucking costs vary, but backhauling saves money. Last year, for example, trucking ran $1.60/mile with backhauls, or about $38/head roundtrip (400-lb. calf from Wyoming to Minnesota, and an 800-lb. bred heifer from Minnesota back to Wyoming.)
"The calves all made it back to Minnesota in good health. We didn't have one sick calf and we were a little worried about that," Crimmins says.
Before shipping to Minnesota, Wyoming calves were preweaning vaccinated, weaned and boostered.
Other Pluses To The Program "If we'd kept replacement heifers here in Wyoming, we'd need more pastures and extra help to AI," Crimmins says. "Regardless, we'd still run the yearlings because they run on different pastures. If we kept heifers, we'd have wanted them closer to headquarters to keep an eye on them." Up to this point, only heifers are AI'd; cows are bred natural service.
Eventually, Kelley Land and Cattle operators hope to ship some of their better, older cows to Minnesota for breeding. "By doing that, we could produce adapted bulls to return to Wyoming," O'Neill explains. "The Minnesota scale of operation allows us to take better care of our extremes ... namely our replacement heifers and our older, environment-proven cows,"" he adds.
In addition, O'Neill says he likes developing heifers in Minnesota because of the ranch's traditions of working with the University of Minnesota, especially on reproduction technology and research. In fact, they're currently involved in a breeding research project.
Although O'Neill says the jury is still out on how successful the Wyoming-born heifer development program works, it seems to make sense on paper. "It dovetails the two sets of resources - Minnesota and Wyoming," he says. "As long as their mothers pass the test in Wyoming, meaning they conceive, rear an adequate calf and remain in the herd with minimal supplemental feed, I believe the freight is cost-effective." L