It's unreal. Hill after Nebraska Sandhill, they keep coming at you, lots and lots of cows, all of them looking as much alike as the mind can imagine.

"Everybody thinks we need to invent something new. Nothing in the industry will change until we improve the product," says Clark Milligan. "Everything the industry needs is right there in front of us. It's just a matter of whether you're willing to commit the time and money to it."

Look at these cows, scan the records, visit with him, his brother Mike, and sisters Gail and Sandy, and you quickly discover they're building a model of industry possibility at their Fawn Lake Ranch northwest of Hyannis, NE. And, t hey're doing it with basic genetics and management.

It wasn't so long ago that the top-end cattle the Milligans bought to run as stockers would outperform the calves produced by the 4,000 females wearing Milligan's U-cross brand. But, not any more.

Last year, the Milligans sent 1,348 of their steers straight to the feedlot at 585 lbs. - weaned at 150 days of age. After 210 days on feed, at 121/2 months of age, those cattle graded 76.8% Choice and Prime, 59.3% Yield Grade(YG) 1-2, 36.7% YG 3, and dressed at 64.7%. The cattle were marketed on the Nebraska Corn Fed Beef grid and earned an average $30/head premium over the cash market.

Performance of these steers was just as impressive in the feedlot where they gained 3.41 lbs./day, with a 5.78:1 feed conversion, compared to an industry average conversion of 6.5:1 and more for calf-feds. "There are carcass premiums out there, but there is a lot more to gain on feed conversion and cost of gain," explains Clark.

Alan Janzen has fed Milligan cattle for 15 years, either buying them or feeding them at his yards - Circle 5 Feeders at Henderson and Imperial Beef at Imperial. He's helped them amass individual carcass data on over 10,000 head in the last 10 years.

Not long ago, a commercial producer was telling Janzen there was no way he could justify spending $2,000 on a bull. Janzen grabbed his Milligan files.

"We feed a good quality of cattle. On Milligans' there was in excess of $40 advantage in cost of gain and feed efficiency compared to the other cattle we fed at the time. Plus, they made $24 per head over the cash market on the grid, so almost $70 per head advantage. That equates to $1,750 from the 25 progeny a bull is expected to produce," explains Janzen.

All this comes after performance in the pasture. Across the cow herd, including second calvers, the Milligans typically achieve a 96% pregnancy rate/cow exposed and 96% calves weaned/cow exposed. In fact, the performance is so uncommon, they're bashful about sharing the information. It speaks to both genetics and management, the simple basics they've embraced to catapult their cow herd forward.

The Power Of Genetics Call it old-fashioned pride. "Our philosophy has always been to try to produce the best we can, not be the biggest but the best," says Clark. "As we work on one trait and get it where we want it, we work on something else and try to improve it without hurting ourselves."

Clark is referring to his family's decision to start using Red Angus in 1984, followed in 1987 by their decision to use only genetics bred or selected by Leachman Cattle Co. Today, genetics include Red Angus, Angus, and those two breeds crossed with South Devon.

By 1990, their decision to milk the power of genetics led them to embrace artificial insemination. "It gives us access to the quality of bulls we want, the bulls we can't afford to buy," says Mike.

They artificially breed all of the heifers and half of the cow herd - 2,600 head last year. What's more, they breed the heifers at 13 months of age for a single cycle, with no prostaglandin. Those that are bred make it to the second female culling at pregnancy-checking time. Those that don't are shipped to the feedlot. Across the cow herd, 80% of the calves come in the first 21 days of their calving season.

Besides having the chance to utilize top bulls artificially each year, progeny testing cattle all the way to the rail, the Milligans buy about 30 Leachman bulls each year to use in natural service. Plus, they DNA test these bulls. Between that and their individual cow records, they know the complete genetic identity of each calf.

"It's the only way you can know how the offspring of the bulls have done, and the only way you can correct it, just like weighing them or following them through the feedlot. Otherwise, how do you know?" says Clark.

In fact, Clark explains an added benefit to the ranch's narrow calving window is that it allows them to have the feeding and carcass data on the last set ofcalves before they breed the next calf crop.

The Power Of Management "Economics drives the whole machine. We try to stay in the middle, so we could go to the right or to the left," Mike says. "Putting the whole package together is our philosophy, something that works all the way from ranch to plate."

The Milligans have built a versatility that offers them advantage whether they sell calves, stockers or retain ownership through the feedlot. "First, a cow has to be able to work on the ranch and support herself, then her progeny has to be able to work from there on," says Clark.

By embracing hard-edged management - for example, they index the sires they use and will never vary from their parameters - and competing head-to-head with purebred breeders for top genetics, the Milligans have increased herd performance exponentially during the last decade.

"It's improved everything, be it milk, weaning and yearling performance or fertility," says Mike. For perspective, he explains they've added 100 lbs. to their weaning weight in the past 10 years.

What's more, Clark says, "Our carrying costs are comparable to those of other commercial producers, but we might spend money in different places than others do, like genetics. In our opinion, that is the last place you should cut corners."

Lee Leachman, CEO of Leachman Cattle Co., Billings, MT, is one person who understands the commitment required of this type of genetic journey. "You really need to have discipline for a long time to build anything in the cattle business, and I think that's where the Milligans have been so tremendous," he says. Moreover, all of this may offer a glimpse of what the industry could look like tomorrow.

"You get 1,000 cows being AI-bred to a bull, and you can make dramatic progress. You get 2,000 bred and you really start flying. This isn't big against little. This is just population genetics," says Leachman.

He's describing the power of testing genetics across huge numbers of females, as the Milligans have done in their herd for the Leachman program and themselves. The Leachmans put the same principle to work in 75 cooperator herds that used their genetics to AI 15,000 cows last year, yielding over 3,000 head of bulls.

"It's a tremendous opportunity to take what we know about population genetics and apply it over a large population of cattle," says Leachman. Between genetic progress and the marketing opportunity it presents to producers, Leachman believes the cooperator concept his family initiated in 1980 will continue to grow.

Outside of a cooperative of herds, the same concept can be just as powerful. The Milligans didn't start out to produce seedstock, but the performance they've engineered offers them alternative opportunities. Clark explains Milligan Ranch is not a cooperator-herd per se, but they have marketed some bulls back through the Leachman sale.

"We're doing all of the things a purebred breeder is doing, but we're in the commercial business," says Mike, explaining the commercial management of the herd, coupled with such things as genetic documentation and progeny testing. All told, the Milligans marketed 300 bulls and 500 females last year, mostly private treaty in Texas through their marketing partner, Dan Leddy of Vann-Roach Cattle Co., Fort Worth.

"Especially in the last few years, diversification and integration have been some of our goals. Any more, you can't just do one thing. You can't get put in a corner where all you can do is one thing," says Clark.

Mike sums up the challenge and opportunity they and their commercial producer peers face. "Survivability and economics, and not just to survive. We not only want to survive, we want to prosper, and that hasn't changed."

Clark adds, "So many people complain about what they're getting for their product, yet they won't make a commitment to change it. The beef industry needs to produce a better quality, more consistent product. The tools are there for everyone to use, but you have to start by making a commitment."