Like many young men who return to the ranch where they grew up, Mike Healy had big dreams back in 1982 when he went home to the LU Ranch at Worland, WY. Despite the inevitable conflicts he knew he would have with his father, Healy’s inquisitive nature and ability to see the long term made him think he could make what his dad had built even better.

Some 30 years later, it’s still a work in progress, he says. And while his 2012 calf crop, fed and harvested in 2013, indicates he’s come a long way in reaching his goals, he’s not ready to say he’s arrived. Ranching is a complicated business, and he says it seems he’s always struggling just to catch up.

“When you go in with enthusiasm, you make all these changes. Some are bad, some are good. You eliminate the bad ones, keep refocusing and focus on the good ones,” he says. It’s a philosophy he still holds today, and it’s the philosophy that underpins his whole approach to ranch management.

His weaning protocol is a good example. For many years, his ranch weaned traditionally, separating the cows and calves and letting them bawl it out. That’s fine when they were selling wet-nosed calves. But Healy and his father began retaining ownership in the late 1980s. By the mid-’90s, Healy began feeding the entire calf crop from his 1,400-head cowherd at Decatur County Feedyard in Oberlin, KS.

When you feed your calves and see the results of your management and genetic decisions further down the marketing chain, it changes your perspective, Healy says.

First, a marketing lesson

“Nobody in our outfit is good enough to tell you what the market is going to do,” says Kevin Unger, Decatur County Feedyard manager. So the feedyard centers its marketing program on historical seasonal movements in the fed-cattle market. “We try to market cattle in the high of the spring, with the second high coming in the fall,” he says.

Traditionally, Healy would wean in October and then background the calves in a yard near Worland for 1½-2 months before shipping them to the feedyard. But that protocol meant the cattle wouldn’t finish until June and July, which is the seasonal bottom of the fed-cattle market.

calf immunity tips“Our profit was $8/head,” Healy says. “For the risks you’re taking, $8/head isn’t worth it. There were years we’d lose $150 and years we’d make $150. It’s fun making $150, but losing $150 takes a notch out of your hide. So we needed to find something more dependable.”

So he began listening to what the folks at Decatur County Feedyard had been telling him — that he needed to change his management procedure so his calves would hit the spring highs in the fed-cattle market.

Healy’s consulting nutritionist had been encouraging him to try early weaning. “But we tried to cheat on it at first,” he says. “We said, ‘Let’s just ship directly to the feedyard.’ The cattle would get through quicker, but they still weren’t selling in April. They were typically selling in late May. But it was earlier, so we were making progress.”