Until the 1990s, the cattle inventory on O’Brien’s ranch and those he manages was virtually all stocker cattle. In the mid-’90s, buying some cows made countercyclical sense to him.

“Our theory was that we’d stock half of our country with cows and half with stockers,” O’Brien explains. “We were doing that partly as a safety play for drought — and economic safety, too.”

The decision proved more than wise the last couple of years amid the historic drought in the Southwest. Stocker cattle provided the necessary shock absorber to maintain their cow herds.

“Early in summer 2011, we destocked and took our yearling cattle to the feedlot,” O’Brien explains. “In 2012, we didn’t buy any stockers for our Texas or New Mexico ranches.

“Because we destocked so early, we had extra grass, so we bought some cows that were equivalent to stockers for us. With the prices they were bringing, if we needed to destock those, they looked to be more profitable than light steers.”

stocker award winner cattleThey kept those stocker cows separate from the breeding herds. O’Brien also keeps cowherds from contact with any Mexican stocker cattle they run. “In a lot of our country, if we ever found a reactor [TB] and had to test cows, it would be a nightmare trying to gather and test them,” he says.

O’Brien’s own ranch, affectionately referred to as The Swamp, and the Martinez Ranch next to it — which he also manages — offer a glimpse to the country in his care. Though beautiful, it’s rough.

Moisture this summer means O’Brien has begun reloading with stocker calves, albeit at a slower pace than normal, but it does nothing to change wheat-pasture trends.

“Wheat pasture was a large part of our stocker operation for a number of years,” O’Brien explains. “We ran more cattle on wheat than grass, and wheat was more profitable for us on a per-pound and per-head basis.”
As grain prices headed north in recent years, fewer wheat growers were eager to make wheat pasture available. Even if that changes down the road, O’Brien says it will be a transition made over time rather than a sudden largesse of the forage.

With less wheat pasture, O’Brien buys cattle in the fall and dry-winters them through to the next summer. It’s increased his costs and cut the number of head he can run. “Like everyone else, we’re trying to figure out what will work,” he says.

Knowing rather than guessing

“If I have data, then I can evaluate my decisions,” O’Brien explains. “I wanted the data so that once I’d paid my tuition in the business, I could use it and not have to keep paying tuition. Knowing how a ranch’s cattle performed the last time I fed them enabled me to buy better cattle.”

He’s alluding to the reason he taught himself to write ranch management software in the mid-1970s, when many others were still questioning whether there was a future for those massive, humming piles of metal called computers. O’Brien wanted profit books rather than just cash accounting. He wanted to know.

Knowing rather than guessing is one reason he’s long advocated mandatory individual animal ID, something he’s used to manage cows and stocker cattle in his operations for years. He championed the cause as president of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association (TCFA) more than two decades ago.

Incidentally, O’Brien’s record of industry volunteer service reads like a how-to manual for “Who’s Who.” In addition to TCFA, a short list includes extensive involvement and key leadership positions with the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, Texas Beef Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Besides the management information enabled by individual ID, O’Brien believes the Eastern Livestock financial debacle would have never happened to the extent it did had mandatory individual ID been used as a way to carry title.

“If ID was mandatory at the point of first transfer, it could be connected to ownership like a Vehicle Identification Number for a pickup or tractor. A lien could be placed against it. When you sold the cattle, the lien would have to be paid before ownership could change. No one could double-mortgage cattle; buyers would have to pay off the original owner,” he explains.

Plus, O’Brien believes it would provide an impediment against livestock theft, as well as helping control a catastrophic disease outbreak.

“I don’t see a downside to it, and the upside is monstrous,” O’Brien says. “It would offer so many benefits — but we’re letting the paranoid, black-helicopter crowd keep the industry from moving that direction.”

In his mind, the primary argument raised by opponents revolves around a fear of liability: that a problem could be traced back to the ranch.

 “What would scare me worse than finding out I had a disease problem on my ranch would be having a disease problem I didn’t know about,” O’Brien says.