They don't talk much about being the biggest Angus outfit in the country. Rather, the talk around central Montana's Stevenson Basin Angus ranch is about being a more-rounded seedstock supplier to a wide array of cattle genetics customers. And, the Stevenson legacy appears to be in good hands as a new generation of family members stand firmly in the ring.
With three thriving family operations — Stevenson Angus, Basin Angus and Stevenson Diamond Dot — the Hobson, MT-based family lays claim to North America's largest Angus herd — both Black and Red. Collectively they run about 4,000 cows on the home ranches, with an additional 1,000 cows in cooperator herds in Oklahoma, Nebraska and Missouri.
Operating on ground plowed during the depth of the Great Depression by their grandparents, Jamie and Jeanette Stevenson, brothers Doug and Clint, and cousin Darrell Stevenson, are today leading the family charge. And as much as one might want to measure the current Stevenson Basin success in terms of sale average, the family recognizes the last decade has been the ranch's most emanding period.
“In 1993, as a family operation, we were faced with the challenge of making room for the next generation,” Darrell says. Concurrently, the ranch, located in the normally lush Judith River basin, was caught in the middle of Montana's worst and longest recorded drought. For the Stevensons, like most other ranchers, drought-induced decisions can last a lifetime.
“Our first and probably most crucial decision was self-induced,” Doug explains. “Our combined cow herds totaled almost 1,600 producing mother cows, and that fall our bull sale broke records with a $4,300 average.”
While sale averages are a benchmark of most seedstock operations, the Stevensons began to get nervous.
“We knew we were approaching the limits of the average rancher's budget,” Clint adds. “We knew we needed to move beyond our ordinary seedstock offerings.”
Meanwhile, as many area producers were reducing their herd numbers, Darrell explains they tried something almost unheard of — expanding during a drought. It wasn't easy, but through efficient irrigation, crop rotation and crop-share programs, they held their numbers together — even allowing room for expansion.
“That expansion allowed us to make more room for the family, and perpetuate an affordable bull market,” Clint says. “From 1993 forward, we've continually increased bull numbers.”
With that objective in mind, the average bull price would always be under control, and a broader genetics selection would be available to ranchers of all sizes and styles.
“We haven't sacrificed quality, and our genetic offerings are bigger and stronger than ever before,” Doug says.
As Stevenson Basin cow herd numbers stabilized, a second goal was being tested — increasing accuracy and predictability of performance data. They're doing that first through EPDs, then with ultrasound technology — and eventually DNA marker testing.
“Individual data has meaning, group data is more informative, but population genetics are the most powerful testing groups,” Doug notes. “With this in mind, we're successfully identifying the breed-leading outliers — a very important part of genetic progress.”
Case in point: The last two years running, the highest-scanning individual animals for intra-muscular fat (IMF) in the entire Angus breed were discovered in the Stevenson Basin program.
Genetic progression is therefore amplified with these outliers.
“Our duty as seedstock producers is not to single-trait select, but properly manage our mating decisions and use these outliers for successful trait progression,” Doug explains. But, in doing so, they knew they couldn't afford to sacrifice the overall balance and functionality of their herd.
“Although EPDs must still be referenced to help explain markers yet to be identified, DNA technology is the next step in evaluation technology, and is the absolute method that accurately describes any part of an animal's actual genetic makeup,” Doug says. “We'll use whatever technology best helps our customers. The last thing we want is for a bull sale to be a crap shoot for any buyer.”
Using genetic marbling and tenderness markers, Stevenson Basin is building its in-herd DNA database. “Current DNA research isn't necessarily the ‘end-all’ of information, but it's a starting point for a new generation of informed genetic evaluation,” Clint adds.
“As seedstock producers, we must remember our primary responsibility has always been, and will continue to be, the production of a quality, efficient meat product, and the service to all segments between the consumer and us,” Darrell says. “Whatever trait we specifically propagate must be profitable for our customers, and ultimately their customers.”
Mountains, deserts and swamps
The Stevenson Basin goal is to have a genetic package to fit nearly any cow herd at an affordable price. But, the story doesn't end there.
“It's important to have a bull that will fit everyone's price range,” says Ryan Hughes, Stevenson Basin's on-staff marketing specialist. “And we want to go the next step and help our customers find the best possible markets for their calves.”
Hughes says the word is getting out about Stevenson Basin progeny. “Cattle buyers from all over the country are knocking down our doors to find calves from our seedstock,” he says. “They know those calves stay healthy in the feedlot, gain and feed fast, and have the carcass traits the market wants.”
Mark and Polly Hill, Mack, CO, are in their fourth year of buying Stevenson bulls. They say they're seeing the results.
“You're doing something right when western Colorado calves are bringing the same price as Nebraska calves,” Mark says. “The buyers seem to know about our genetics and how our calves will perform in the feedlot.”
It's no mystery how those buyers know where to find Stevenson genetics.
“We sell through Superior Livestock, and the Stevensons have people at each sale helping promote our calves,” Polly says. Mark adds that, everything else being equal, the “reputation genetics,” coupled with Stevenson marketing assistance, is worth a $5-$7/cwt. premium for the calves the Hills market.
“Ryan Hughes spent a few days with us on the ranch getting to know our operation,” Polly explains. “That's a great help when it comes to finding bulls that will fit our budget and still work well for our program.”
And, budget buying is important to the Hills.
“We run on the desert in the winter and the mountains in the summer. We only see our cattle twice a year,” Mark adds. “This is a low-input operation. We can't afford to pay more than $3,000 for a bull.”
For Ricky Booth, the swamps of central Florida offer different extremes. As a rancher, he finds Stevenson Basin bulls are up to the challenge.
“We need good Angus genetics to cross with the Brahman cattle that will survive here,” Booth says. “We need bulls that hold up in these extremes of heat, humidity and moisture, but are also affordable.”
He says the quality genetics and hybrid vigor of the Stevenson Basin bulls are worth going to Montana and hauling a load home.
“We know they'll perform well in the feedlot,” he adds, “and most everyone around here recognizes Stevenson Basin cattle.”
Alliances and allegiances
The consistency of Stevenson Basin genetics, combined with attention to carcass traits, has also helped customers find niches in branded-beef programs.
Matt Bode, Denver, CO, is cattle-procurement manager for Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, LLC, processor of Creekstone Farms Premium Black Angus Beef™. He's trying to buy as many cattle as possible with Stevenson Basin genetics for Creekstone's quality beef programs.
“They produce great cattle, and there is getting to be a lot of Stevenson Basin progeny around,” Bode says. “We need the kind of cattle their genetics produce for our natural and premium programs, as well as our source- and age-verified programs.”
Bode says he'd eventually like to see an alliance developed between his company, cattle feeders and ranchers using Stevenson Basin genetics. He's working with Hughes to identify producers — like the Hills — who might fit into such an alliance.
“You might see some kind of program dedicated to their genetics as we go forward,” he explains. “They're simply gaining that kind of dominance in the U.S. cattle business.”
And, with an eye toward the long run, the Stevensons are willing to help beginning ranchers get a leg up. In 2003, they gave Jeff Sampsel, 14, from nearby Stanford, MT, a registered heifer for his 4-H breeding project. The deal: He'd give them the first bull calf from the heifer, along with some time working for Stevenson Basin.
In 2004, the young Sampsel bought four more bred Angus cows from the Stevensons.
“They bought the bull calves back from me, and will probably put them in their sale this spring or next fall,” he says. “I'll also raise purebred heifers, and they'll either buy the heifers back or help me find a buyer for them.”
Jeff's parents, John and Betty Sampsel, have been Stevenson Basin customers for several years. They see the arrangement as a good way for their son to learn more about the business, while encouraging him build his own herd.
“I think the future of this business lies in getting aligned with someone and developing a program with them, whether it's in genetics or marketing,” says John Sampsel. “In this case, they work with us and we'll work with them — and everybody can come out ahead.”
Montana young guns
Don't talk about the “graying” of agriculture around Montana's Stevenson Basin (SB) Angus ranch. Looking around, one might think that Doug Stevenson, at 41 years, is the elder statesman of an otherwise “30-something” outfit. Following is a rundown on the ages of some other Stevenson Basin family members and key employees:
- Clint Stevenson, Diamond Dot Angus — 37
- Darrell Stevenson, Stevenson Angus — 36
- Shane Whiteman, SB marketing — 39
- Ryan Hughes, SB marketing — 31
- Bob Stevenson, SB ultrasound/embryo tech — 30
- Lance Hughes, SB veterinarian — 35