“Grass management is our primary focus,” emphasizes Scot Holcombe, this year's summer-stocker division winner in the National Stocker Award competition.

Here, that means managing what can be nightmarishly diverse forage amid sprawling swaths of the Osage country. There's big and little bluestem, Bermuda grass, ryegrass, endophyte-infected fescue and the endophyte-free variety he's trying to establish, Lespedeza, several clover varieties, and most recently, the introduction of Red River crabgrass.

Every bit of this ground is leased, too. “It's cheaper to lease land than own it. I don't own any of the land and I don't need to,” Holcombe says.

What he did decide he needed after more than 20 years in the business was a strategic partnership.

All the cattle Holcombe manages flow to one of the feedlots owned by Mull Farms and Feeding at Pawnee Rock, KS. At harvest, these cattle are marketed via the Beef Marketing Group, a value-added cattle feeding and marketing partnership.

Holcombe partners on most of the cattle and manages others without retaining any ownership. He also takes in other cattle on a gain basis.

“The guy out there just running stockers by himself without any relationships is a dying breed. You have to have relationships up and down the chain,” believes Holcombe. “When these cattle come in, I already know when they're going to be going out and where they'll go.”

Combining old and new

“The stocker business won't change because we're going to buy under-valued cattle and try to add value to them,” Holcombe says. “There is no typical program… If there's a bargain out there, we need to be buying them — no matter what time of year it is.”

What's different is knowing how cattle perform to fit a subsequent breakeven at the feedlot.

“Any decisions that can impact the operation's profitability are examined from a cash-flow perspective, then stress-tested using different outcomes,” explains Holcombe, who has an MBA. “This hasn't always precluded getting into a wreck, but it gives us the chance to shape a more positive outcome.”

Besides the normal vagaries of finding profit in high-risk cattle, such as cutter bulls and flyweights out of Florida, Holcombe says declining cattle health and rising input costs add challenge.

“We didn't have the health problems 25 years ago that we have now. We put more medicine in them than we ever have and we still end up with the same problems.” Cattle here are managed in groups ranging from 300 to 1,500 head.

As for input costs, everyone knows the story.

That's why managing forage and matching its value to the cattle continues to be the lynchpin of innovation at Holcombe Ranch.

Red River crabgrass is now a growing high-energy part of Holcombe's arsenal that he's looking to run in rotation with ryegrass. The crabgrass is yielding another ½-lb. of gain, compared to Bermuda grass — 1.75 lbs. on average compared to 1.25 lbs.

“I was probably too conservative stocking this year,” Holcombe said in June as he surveyed pastures. “Rain makes everybody look smart.” Until this summer, he'd endured the worst drought he could remember; it lasted about 18 months.

The most valuable resource

“If there are opportunities to grow outside grass (leases), I'll look at it, but I'm not aggressively pursuing it. The biggest problem is labor. You have to already have someone in mind to manage it before taking it on.”

Holcombe employs six others full-time. That's one thing he's most proud of, that his stocker operation can support seven families.

“As manager, I'm trying to put resources where they need to be, and labor is the most valuable resource,” he says. “With the scope of my operation, I push a lot of responsibility down to my employees and I expect them to think their way through a lot of problems they might see. Conversely, I need to be able to take their advice and input also.”

For the challenges, Holcombe is more excited about the business than when he began.

“I feel my role as a stocker operator will become increasingly important over the next few years. With the increased price of corn, grass-based programs will become an increasingly important part of the industry and its efforts to be competitive with poultry and hogs,” says Holcombe.

Editor's Note: Visit www.nationalstockeraward.com for more on Scot Holcombe's operation.