But weaning early and shipping directly, without the benefit of backgrounding, led to some major health problems after the calves went on feed. “We couldn’t overcome our health problems, and we eventually had to stop doing that,” he says.

He heard about the nose-flap method of weaning and tried that. “We really liked it,” he says, but he was still weaning and shipping directly to the feedyard. And still experiencing health issues.

He went back to weaning them straight again; the result was an 8% death loss. So Unger and the feedyard’s consulting veterinarian made a visit to the LU Ranch, where the veterinarian diagnosed the problem as one common to large Western ranches.

Healy runs around 1,400 cows in the high desert of the West, an area that gets only 9-10 in. of precipitation. His stocking rate is 8-9 pairs/section, meaning big pastures and little contact between groups of cattle.

The problem, the vet said, was that the calves had a naïve immune system. Even with vaccination, their immune systems hadn’t fully developed before they shipped to the feedyard, where they mingled with calves from many different sources. “We knew that was an issue, the naïveté of the immune system. We knew we were also stressing them by the way we weaned,” Healy says.

Fenceline weaning wasn’t practical, given the expansive pastures. “So we tried the nose flaps again. We found that when we weaned them, the calves are absolutely quiet. They don’t mind getting weaned, and they don’t mind getting on the truck. It’s the cows that are bawling.”

Changing the weaning procedure dealt with the stress of traditional weaning. “But we needed to do something about allowing their immune systems to develop,” Healy says. That was conquered by returning to the backgrounding feedlot, where the calves stay for two months, developing on a high-roughage ration.

And they continued early weaning. “We said, ‘Let’s really shoot at the April target. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting a lot closer.’ ”

The 2012 calf crop was weaned the last week of August. The steer calves from the 2-year-olds were weaned Sept. 10. After a stop in the backgrounding feedlot, the calves were shipped in mid-November.

Hitting a home run

And the calves hit a home run. Here’s the “tale of the tape” after harvest in mid-May, with a comparison with the 2009 calf crop in parentheses:

  • Average daily gain, 3.78 lbs./day  (3.67 lbs. in 2009)
  • Ribeye area, 13.4 sq. in. average (12.5 sq. in. in 2009)
  • 48.7% in upper 2/3 Choice, 30.1% lower Choice for a total of 78.8% in the Choice grade (25.6% in upper 2/3 Choice and 42.9% in lower Choice in 2009, for a total of 68.5%.)
  • Yield grade, average of 2.8 (same as 2009)
  • Hot carcass weight, 862 lbs. average (816 lbs. in 2009)
  • Feed efficiency, 4.87 lbs. of feed/lb. of gain (5.41 in 2009)
  • Dressing percentage, 64.42% (63.1% in 2009)

To some extent, Healy credits those numbers to the changes in his weaning and health management. “I think they were healthier last year, and I think that helped the conversion,” he says. “Good health improves feed conversion, and it improves the quality grade.”

The year before, when he weaned directly to the feedlot and had such high death loss, quality grade took a big hit. “If it’s getting sick and they have to doctor it, it’s not going to grade, it’s not going to convert well and it’s not going to gain well,” he says.

But Healy is quick to point out that everything has to work in concert. “It takes a long time to get to this point,” he says.

Over the past 30 years, he’s made several changes in his genetics. Some worked, some didn’t. He changed his grazing strategy, using water distribution and lick barrels to manage grazing pressure and provide supplement at the same time. And he changed lots of other things on the ranch, and continues to look for ways to keep up with the changing dynamics of ranching today.

“We target how to make the most from the choices we have in our genetic selections and our on-the-ranch management to try to have a marketing program that will be profitable most of the time,” he says. “You focus on health, you focus on timing and you focus on genetics. If I survive long enough, I’ll look back 10 years from now and say I should have been focusing on a couple of other things.”

In an industry that’s always changing, that’s a given. But given that Healy feels he’s always a step or two behind his goals, and he’s always trying to catch up with where he wants to be, it likely won’t take him 10 years to refocus himself and remake his management to fit the changing paradigms of a complicated, shifting business.


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