S&M Cattle Company
Summer Division Winner
These sprawling plains in southeast Colorado can be barren, tough country. With just a little moisture, though, they serve up the strongest grass.
Jerry Sullivan's dad homesteaded here near Ordway in 1914. Drought forced him to liquidate the cowherd in the 1930s and 1950s. That's when he started buying lightweight calves to run on summer grass here.
Jerry adopted the same strategy when he started running stocker cattle here in 1960. As industry cattle weights increased, though, the challenge became how to profitably buy and winter lightweight calves to exploit his summer grass.
Until 1990, the Sullivans — including Jerry's wife Linda, daughter Kelly, and son Shad — bought calves out of the Southeast and wintered them at a grow yard in Colorado. Feed costs got too high, so they searched for cool-season forage. That led to Mississippi where it was too wet for the performance they needed. They also had a disastrous run in East Texas, after which they vowed to never again leave cattle with someone else, and they haven't.
Building a system with miles
Fast forward, Shad and Kelly built a 1,200-head preconditioning yard at Megargel, TX (southwest of Wichita Falls). Another sister, Kristy, comes up from her coaching duties in Hamlin, TX, to help out.
In the fall, they buy flyweight calves (250-300 lbs.) from Miller Cattle Co. in Mississippi. After processing and a week of free-choice hay and mineral, cattle are conditioned on wheat pasture 14-40 days.
“We're lucky enough that the man we rent wheat from has small enough fields that we don't have to commingle any of the cattle for the first 60 days,” Shad says.
Cattle stay on wheat as long as it lasts, then just like the old days, calves are pushed North across the Red River to summer grass in Colorado, usually mid-May. Shad and Kelly head north with the cattle. By mid-October, feeder cattle weighing around 820 lbs. go to market.
“Our part of the business is specialized,” Jerry says. “There are so few who want to take a lightweight calf and own them all the way to yearling time.”
Kelly points out keeping those flyweight calves alive, basically living with them, is the foundation to their program's viability.
“What makes our operation work is that, number one, we work hard,” Shad says. “Also, we have good healthy relationships with everyone we work with.”
Primarily, the Sullivans run heifers. “We learned that a heifer has stronger immunity than a steer,” Jerry says. “We also like the cheaper cost per head.” Typically, you could buy heifers $8-$10 in back of the steers, but sell them within $2-$5. “I might have to change my mind, though. I can sell a steer within $1 of the board now (late July), but I can't price a heifer within $10-$12 of it.”
A dry summer and too little grass gain may also necessitate a shift to retaining ownership through the feedlot this year. It would be only the second time since 1990 they've done so.
Shad explains they hedge the cattle as soon as profit presents itself, sometimes even before calves go to wheat.
“If you're willing to put the time and labor into it, willing to do the best job you can, it will still work. We've all given something to it,” Jerry says. “Our ranch has to make it. If it doesn't we're out of business. There isn't anything else.”