Tom Woodward doesn't take his hat off very often. You know that by the sweat-stain circle where brim meets crown, and by its sunburned and wind-beaten shape.
In fact, outside of church and the many industry meetings he attends, it's likely the only time Woodward takes his hat off is to scratch his head trying to figure out how to manage around and through higher operating costs and still produce cattle that yield tender, consumer-acceptable beef.
Which means he's taking his hat off a lot more than he used to.
Woodward is general manager of Broseco Ranch, a 10,000-acre operation near Decatur, TX that's home to 2,700 crossbred commercial cows and a 200-head registered Red Angus herd.
“The consumer is the one who floats our boat,” he says. “If we don't continue to provide a quality product, and an even better quality product than we provide today, then I think we're going to be in trouble at some point in time.”
Yet he admits that adjusting for rising input costs is a real challenge. “We need to adjust; we need to figure out how to reduce those input costs. But at the same time, continue to improve our product. I don't see how we can afford to back off of that.”
Producing a quality beef product — quality defined as meeting the expectations of a discriminating consumer time after time — isn't a new idea for Woodward. He's one of the founders of Rancher's Renaissance, a group that came together in the mid '90s to develop a branded-beef line sold as Rancher's Registry products in more than 2,000 Safeway stores.
His goal is to produce 70% Choice and 70% Yield Grade 1 and 2 carcasses. While he doesn't hit that mark every year, he always is close and says the quest for that kind of quality is both a genetic and management effort. And he starts with the things he can control. One of those is, of course, genetics.
In any cow herd, maternal traits are the first focal point, so he looks at EPDs and the results of DNA tests first. “Then, when I've got those things corralled, I look for that bull that also has good carcass traits.”
Relative to quality traits, “We're going to spend money on bulls that marble and that are tender,” he says. “I'm going to chase that rabbit hard to find those bulls that do those two things.”
Another trait he watches closely is temperament. “Crazy cattle don't provide the kind of product we want,” he says. Besides, they're a management headache and a safety concern.
Selecting for marbling and tenderness while keeping maternal traits in mind isn't cheap, he admits.
“That bull brings a lot of money because other people are looking for the same thing. So I think if you're going to find those kind of genetics, you've got to understand you're not going to get him for $2,000. It will cost you some dollars up front, but practically speaking, it doesn't cost you once you've made that genetic investment,” Woodward says.
Management counts, too
Rancher's Renaissance producers adhere to 24 quality control points stretching across the production continuum from ranch to retail. One of those is that ranchers produce calves that can reach carcass-quality goals by 20 months of age.
That means he weans at six to seven months of age. “We know as that animal gets older, gets on up to 30 months, the carcass gets tougher. So if we back off our vision of producing a quality product and say we're going to have to make 'em weigh 9 before going to the feedyard, and we're going to feed them less and they're going to have to be bigger and older, that's going in the wrong direction in terms of the type of product we need to be providing.”
The other thing Woodward can control is the health of his calves at weaning. “We're going to precondition that calf, which we know is a contributor to a quality product.”
The reason is proven, he says. “If we have a high rate of morbidity in a set of cattle, we use a lot of antibiotics. We know that reduces quality grade.”
Intersection of quality, cost
In addition, unhealthy cattle consume dollar bills with an alarming appetite. And where the roads to higher quality and lower cost intersect is where decisions with long-term implications are being made.
In Woodward's mind, however, it's not as much an intersection as a merging lane. The two concepts can coexist, he says. In fact, they have to. “Our goal in our ranching operation is to continue to provide the right kind of product. My challenge, then, is to figure out how I can do that and stay in business.”
In addition to spending more time and money on a planned vaccination and preconditioning program, rather than spending more money and more time on a health wreck later, Woodward focuses on some additional management practices that help the bottom line.
He starts by putting pressure on maternal traits at the front end to create a cow that can stay in the herd. While he breeds heifers to calve at two years of age, like many operations, he only gives them 45 days to settle. “A heifer typically is going to have to be born at the front of the calving season; she's going to have to cycle early and get bred. Then she's going to have to breed back in 60 days for the second calf.”
By the time she drops the second calf, she's gone through a pretty rigorous test reproductively and maternally, he says. “So my philosophy is if I put that pressure on early, I have much better chance of having a long-term relationship with that ol' cow.” Given that it's a lot cheaper to keep one than replace one, that's important to Woodward's bottom line.
His target on yearling heifers is to get 90% conception. He seldom gets there. “It's usually between 85% and 90%. My goal to get them bred back with a second calf is 90%. I typically fall somewhere between 85% and 90%.”
Assume he's getting 85% and multiply those two percentages. Somewhere around 70% of his original replacement heifers are still around after their second calf. “Some will say that's not very good. Well, I'm trying to control inputs. I don't want to feed them any more than I have to feed them to get the job done. But I promise you, the 70% that make it are pretty good cows.”
He believes in crossbreeding, although he quickly adds that it needs to be planned and matched to the environment, all the while keeping carcass quality in mind. “A commercial producer needs to use heterosis if he's going to contend with rising inputs. He cannot afford to give up 10-15% in production.”
He also focuses on grazing management. “Using those forage resources effectively is even more important now than it was a few years ago,” he says. “Those people who have an effective grazing management program are going to be more competitive than the guy who doesn't have that.”
He is intent on not just collecting data, but in interpreting it so it becomes useful information. That is an area where most cattlemen need a little help. “I did,” he admits. “Most ranchers need a statistician or an animal breeder to really make meaningful information out of their data.” And he strongly encourages cow-calf producers to have a marketing plan.
“If you've got a marketing plan, you've got a breeding plan, you've got a grazing management plan and you're measuring where you're going, then you've got a chance to adjust and adapt to the changing conditions we're in and survive.”
A road less traveled?
Woodward feels strongly, regardless of whether a producer sells calves at weaning or is involved in a value-added marketing program, that everyone needs to produce for consumer acceptance. “And that's the line I get criticized for — worrying too much about the industry and what we're producing for the consumer instead of putting an extra dollar in my pocket.”
He'll take that criticism, “because I'll stand up and say every time, if you're part of this industry, you owe it to the industry to help improve our industry. I really believe that. If you're going to make your living in this industry, you have some responsibility to help improve it and make a better product.”