If you head south from Ellendale, ND, past the community baseball field and a mile into South Dakota, you'll find the ranch headquarters of Bruce and Lynette Durheim. The couple manages 350 spring-calving cows on 2,600 acres using horses, four-wheelers and their border collie, Hannah.

That's limited manpower for the husband and wife duo, but it fits their game plan of quiet handling, rotational grazing and fenceline weaning. But the homerun they're cheering about is the premiums their calves bring home under a retained-ownership program.

It's recognition that others are cheering for, too. In September of 2007, the Red Angus Association of America (RAAA) awarded the Durheims and cattle feeder Dana Dennert one its GridMaster awards. It was their fourth title since 2003.

“It's a nice thing to strive for,” Lynette says. “We don't consciously think about it, but we always want to make our calves better.”

To earn GridMaster recognition, there's a 30-head lot minimum. Cattle need to grade at least 80% Choice with no more than 7.5% Yield Grade (YG) 4. The load also must meet a minimum grid score of 100, which is a ratio of a set of cattle compared to targets for Choice, YG and premium products, explains Greg Comstock, RAAA marketing programs coordinator.

The GridMaster program has evolved since it began in 2003 to include the Angus America grid, Meyer Natural Angus program and Beef Northwest Feeders. Initially, specifications were based on threshold levels, some of which have been eliminated and incorporated into the grid score. Cattle no longer need to meet threshold minimums of 80% Choice, 40% YG 1 and 2s, 40% premium products or a maximum of 4.5% YG 4s.

“The spirit of grid marketing is you get paid for excellence in certain areas and you get discounted for problems in others,” Comstock explains. “We realized that with everything being at a threshold level, we eliminated some sets of cattle that were just phenomenally profitable.”

Comstock recalls a set of Durheim cattle — 86% Choice, more than 50% YG 1s and 2s, and 1,300- to 1,350-lb. slaughter weights at an average age of 12 months and 9 days. The group returned $1,057 to the cow after feeding costs, but didn't win the GridMaster title because it only had 26% premium products.

A new attitude

In 1991, the Durheims were selling Simmental calves to an Illinois feeder. He called one day to complain about the length of the feeding period on the cattle.

“We switched immediately,” Bruce says. “What do you do if the buyer doesn't want your calves?”

That phone call forced a change in the Durheims' sire lineup — to Red Angus bulls on their existing Simmental cowherd. The switch has been good, he says, and, to his surprise, cow weights increased.

“They're stouter, thicker, easier-keeping,” Bruce says of the ¾ Red Angus, ¼ Simmental cows. Cull-cow weights for the Durheims are around 1,425-lbs. Bruce believes he's found a perfect cross, but wonders how they'll maintain the genetic balance of pounds and carcass.

Getting involved with a new breed was a challenge, Bruce says, because the bloodlines were unfamiliar. “You really have to trust your seedstock guys,” he says. He feels he has a good one in Red Angus breeder Melvin Leland, of Sidney, MT.

Choosing retained ownership

Bruce says the catalyst to retain ownership came 11 years ago when a pen of “yearling scrubs” fetched a higher price at the local salebarn than his group of 638-lb. calves.

At that time, Dana Dennert, a farmer-feeder and cow-calf producer from Columbia, SD, approached Bruce about partnering on the feeding of Durheims' calves. The arrangement has served both parties well, and evolved from a business deal into a friendship, Bruce says.

Durheim's opportunity cost in retained ownership is determined by establishing the value of the calves at the time of feedyard placement — usually top local salebarn price. Before arrival at the feedlot, the calves receive their last booster shot and are individually weighed. Together, Bruce and Dennert sort the calves visually and by weight. The steers aren't weaned yet — 135 head arrive bawling at Dennert's feedlot 20 miles from where they were born.

Dennert describes his feedlot as “small,” only feeding 400-500 head/year. Durheims' calves are the only cattle brought in; Dennert's 300-head, cow-calf operation supplies the rest.

“We feed these to do as good as we can for Choice, but we're feeding them to make money and get them killed at a young age and hit that May market,” Dennert says. The cattle have done just that — harvested at 13 months and making grade.

Dennert expects the calves to gain more than 3 lbs./day. Steers are implanted 90-120 days pre-harvest, and visually sorted into three load lots with an eye to an endpoint target of 1,300 lbs. There's generally a three-week lag to finish date between the first group and the third.

They've used ultrasound technology in the past, but Dennert says they haven't needed the technology to attain the carcass premiums these steers provide.

Steers are sent to the Cargill packing facility in Schuyler, NE, which costs the Durheims $30-$35/head in transportation. They're looking forward to the marketing options provided by a new beef plant under construction in Aberdeen, SD.

Making money

The secret to making money is to know your cattle, Lynette says. She advises cow-calf producers to participate in programs that provide carcass feedback. “If you find out how your calves do in the feedlot, you will know if retained ownership could generate more profit for your operation.”

Durheims' cow-calf enterprise has generated up to $1,025/head back to the cow (gross), Bruce says, but it's a number that fluctuates each year. All other premiums earned in the feedyard are a bonus.

“Nine of 11 years we've made money by finishing them,” Bruce says. That's ranged from a $50/head loss to a $225/head profit. But if you think that's drastic, think about the potential variation within a pen. Durheims say there can be a $500 difference between the best and worst steer.

“It's a hard crop to be consistent at,” Lynette says.

A set of cattle not earning GridMaster recognition in 2005 earned Durheims the Outstanding Cow-Calf Producer award from Angus America, which is based on highest premiums paid.

“It was neat winning over all the black cattle,” Bruce says of the 129 head that earned a $45.67/head premium.

“We haven't been selecting for carcass, but now we don't want to mess it up, either,” Bruce says. He seeks AI sires that have balance; they heat detect and AI almost every cow on the place, achieving a 70% conception rate. In their tank is a mix of proven and unproven AI sires — but they won't use a young bull two years in a row. To get a good gauge on a sire's progeny, they strive to have 35 calves/sire. Seven herd bulls handle clean-up duty.

The Durheims are cow-calf producers who are covering all their bases — from the right cattle and the right partnerships — to effective programs in selection, grazing, handling and heifer development.

Bruce credits their success to a willingness to change. “When you see the good results of change, you're much more eager to change the next time,” Lynette adds.

Carcass results that earned the Durheims and Dana Dennert four GridMaster awards:
2003 - 82 head 85.37% Choice
52.44% Premium products
46.34% Yield Grade 1s and 2s
0% Yield Grade 4s
$57.57/head profit
2006 - 44 head 86.36% Choice
54.55% Premium products
40.91% Yield Grade 1s and 2s
4.55% Yield Grade 4s
$59.96/head profit
2006 - 45 head 88.89% Choice
51.11% Premium products
31.11% Yield Grade 1s and 2s
4.44% Yield Grade 4s
$68.11/head profit
2007 - 45 head 86.7% Choice - 93% Choice and above!
77.8% Premium products
42.2% Yield Grade 1s and 2s
4.4% Yield Grade 4s
$76.46/head profit