“When you come to a fork in the road,” observed the legendary Yogi Berra, “take it.”
Reeves and Betsy Brown can appreciate that advice, because that's exactly where they found themselves about 10 years ago — staring at a fork in the genetic road their 3R Ranch was on. They weren't sure which fork to take, but they knew they had to do something because the option of following the road they were on really wasn't an option at all.
How did they know that? Because they had just received a lesson in genetic reality that shook them to the very core of their beliefs. But after picking up the pieces and asking themselves some hard and painful questions, they took the high road. And that made all the difference.
For many years, the Browns produced the kind of calves the cash market demanded — big and growthy, with lots of muscle and gain potential. They weaned big, they gained big and, in a market geared to just rewarding pounds, they sold big.
The Browns were confident they were doing what they needed to do with their genetics. And in the cash market, where little or no information passes from one production segment to the next, they were.
But in an effort to realize all the profit potential their southern Colorado ranch could provide, they were among the first to join U.S. Premium Beef (USPB) when the organization launched in the mid '90s. They bought into the idea in 1996 and fed their first pen of calves shortly thereafter.
And that's when they hit the fork in the road.
Family cow operation
The Browns run a 650-head commercial-cow operation on 10,000 acres in southern Colorado near Beulah, about 25 miles southwest of Pueblo. They moved there in 1981 after ranching for years in Central Texas and began upgrading their mixed Brahman cowherd, using a variety of breeds before settling on a composite of Simmental, Gelbvieh, Red Angus and Hereford.
“They (the composite bulls) did a pretty good job of uniforming the cattle,” Reeves says, though the genetics also increased mature cow size. And even prior to joining USPB, the Browns were not new to cattle feeding. “We had been feeding cattle for several years,” he remembers. “Our calves off the ranch had gone to feedlots in the Texas Panhandle before we moved to Colorado, and we fed in three or four lots around the country. So we had an idea of what we were feeding in the way of performance. But we didn't get any carcass data back.”
They knew, looking down the road, that the industry was changing and ranchers who were positioned to take advantage of the emerging trend toward high-quality, high-value cattle would be better able to keep making the home ranch pay the bills.
So they bought into USPB and got ready to reap the rewards. What they got instead was an expensive lesson. Their first set of calves fell short of the quality-grade benchmarks the USPB quality grid demanded. Of five pens fed, the percent Choice per pen ranged from 38-51%.
And that was not the first of the bad news. It started shortly after their cattle walked off the truck at Triangle H feedlot, a 4,000-head operation south of Garden City, KS. The calves started getting sick. And kept getting sick. “It was,” says Sam Hands, Triangle H owner/manager, “one of my more memorable health wrecks.”
And that's where the Browns and Yogi found common ground.
But rather than blaming the feedyard, the packer, the government, their state and national cattle organizations and anybody else they could think of, they started asking questions. And the answers they got put them on the high road they're still traveling today.
Help along the way
Betsy credits several people for helping them take the right fork in the road: Hands at the feedyard; Mark Gardiner with Gardiner Angus Ranch in Ashland, KS; Randall Spare, the Gardiners' veterinarian; and Marvin Hamann with Mesa Veterinary Clinic in Pueblo. “We've really tried to practice what they taught us and it certainly has benefited us,” Betsy says.
On the health side, working with Hands and veterinarians Spare and Hamann, they adopted an aggressive health program where they vaccinate at branding, pre-weaning and post-weaning.
“We wean them across the fence from their mothers, and that seems to be a very positive, stress-free condition for them,” Reeves says.
They retain ownership in 100% of their steers and cull heifers, backgrounding the calves on the ranch for 45 days before heading to a Kansas winter-grazing program on irrigated wheat.
On the genetic front, they're working diligently to reduce cow size while selecting bulls for carcass traits. “We're definitely in transition,” Reeves says. “We've got some cows that are still way too big. But you can see a predominance now of smaller cattle that have a neater, trimmer phenotype.”
They buy bulls from Gardiner Angus, principally on their carcass EPDs, looking for positive ribeye and marbling and negative fat. “And then we look for the Dollars in Beef to be 45 or higher. We're a little less demanding on milk, testicle size and those things because we've got a pretty good basis for them in the genetics of the cow herd,” Reeves says. They also focus on birthweight, trying to keep it below 70-75 lbs. for their heifers and 80 for the cows.
And then, they work to make sure their calves have every opportunity to show their full genetic potential, including keeping a positive nutrition level from conception until the day they're shipped.
“Years ago, we studied holistic resource management, and we've just kept trying to tune that up better and better,” Betsy says. They also studied low-stress cattle handling under Bud Williams.
“We fenced the ranch into 100-acre segments with electric wire. The cows get moved every few days, and it's such a peaceful way. When we're ready to move the cows, all we have to do is go down there, holler at the cows, open the gate and they march right through. So it's very low stress on the cows and low stress on the people,” Betsy adds.
And the high-intensity rotational grazing has dramatically improved the quantity and nutritional quality of the grass. That's positive for carcass traits, as research shows that marbling can be affected by a calf's nutritional level long before it arrives at the feedyard. Plus, calm cattle just perform better. “There's definitely an advantage,” Reeves says of low-stress cattle handling, “that yields benefits down the road.”
Betsy agrees, but says they still have a ways to go. “We're not quite satisfied, but we're pleased with the path we're on,” she says. Their goal, Reeves says, is to produce carcasses that grade 90% Choice.
“We're 20% below that, and we'd like to have no Yield Grade 4s. Ultimately, a carcass that could be a Yield Grade 2, maybe a few 3s,” he adds.
They're confident they'll get there. “This will be the first year to have electronic IDs (EID) in all the cows, so we can just wand them as they go through the chute,” Betsy says. “We can really get the screws down tight on all the details on the cows and carry that through to their heifers. Then we can plug the information that comes back from USPB in to the cows and see the whole picture with great ease.” They'll also put EID tags in all the calves born this year to allow them to match records more effectively.
Hands has developed an index that uses the relationship between feedlot performance and carcass performance. “We rank every animal in that pen, one to 100. And we encourage the producer to not worry so much about the top end, but find out why these are at the bottom and see if you can eliminate that.”
The Browns are now poised to do that much more efficiently. “We just made a major investment in the Cow Sense® program to keep feedlot records and be able to tie it back to the cow herd,” Reeves says. That's something he admits they haven't done as good a job with as they could, because it had to be done manually. “Now we're getting to the point where we can afford to cull a little more on the feedlot and carcass performance.”
That combination of progressive thinking and hard work is paying off. Reeves says that selling on a quality-based grid always yields them a price premium because they're hitting the industry's quality benchmarks.
“Their quality grade is at least double what it was their first year,” Hands says, “and I'd say they are meeting or exceeding the (feedlot) performance they had before, as well. And health is just not an issue with their cattle any more.”
The Browns look back on that time in the late '90s with a mixture of dismay and relief. The dismay came from the realization — in black and white, with a dollar sign attached to the front end — that their genetics weren't matched up with the quality-based grids USPB offered. The relief came later, when they set themselves and their 650-head 3R Ranch down a path that is leading them to better management, better genetics and a bigger paycheck.
“It fits in the scheme of trying to do things up to the best,” Reeves says. “It's an ingrained passion with me; I guess it's one of those things you're taught when you grow up, to try to improve and be a good steward.”
He says it's important, necessary even, for cow-calf producers to keep the consumer in mind as they make their management decisions. “And it's rewarded. Who knows what will happen (with the ranch) in the next hands. But at least it will serve our souls better to know we did it like we think is right.”