Big picture, small detailsSize is an obvious feature of Silver Spur Ranches. Headquartered in Encampment, Wyo., the company operates large ranches in New Mexico, central and northern Colorado and southern Wyoming, with a total of over 15,000 commercial and registered cows.

A closer look reveals that, in spite of its size, this is not an operation focused on volume but rather on the finer details of land and cattle management, assembling the pieces with a long-range view of economic, environmental and social sustainability.

Thad York, general manager of Silver Spur Ranches, says the sprawling operation maintains the feel and integrity of a family ranch. York represents the third generation of his family on the ranch — his grandfather, Jim York, served as manager in the 1950s and ‘60s — and his son now represents the fourth. Several other families — the Longs in New Mexico and the Knotwells in Wyoming — have lived and worked on the company’s ranches for multiple generations.

The ranch’s owners and employees, York says, take a long-term view, looking for ways to continuously improve the quality of cattle, land management and cattle marketing. “Building ranch traditions for tomorrow’s generations” serves as an informal slogan for the company.

Cheramie Viator has served as marketing manager at Silver Spur for 2.5 years, focusing on improving overall cow-herd genetics, efficiency and forage utilization across the operation.

Breeds the operation uses include Angus, Red Angus, Charolais and some Hereford. The commercial cow herd is primarily Angus- and Red Angus-based, with Charolais used in terminal-cross systems and to produce “Rangefire” crossbred bulls and females. Silver Spur was one of the first U.S. ranches to begin raising registered Charolais cattle in the 1950s. “No single breed does everything everywhere,” York notes, so the ranch strives to capitalize on the strengths of different breeds.

Looking back a few years, Viator says cows across the operation had grown bigger than ideal and required more maintenance than ranch managers preferred. Over the past few years, she says, the company has sold significant numbers of cows based mostly on size, and set cow size and forage efficiency as genetic priorities.

The operation is working to build more correctly sized cows, with easy fleshing ability, high efficiency, good fertility and stayability. “We want cows that will wean 50 percent of their bodyweight, breed back and produce calves that fit in our breeding herd or as feeder cattle,” Viator says. “We also retain ownership of most calves through finishing,” she adds, “so we need growth and muscling ability for calves to work at the feedyard and on the rail.  It’s a challenge to design cattle that work in all of our forage environments and hit our production targets.”

Viator and Silver Spur managers have been purchasing Red Angus females from several sources, working to build a core herd that excels in low-energy maintenance and high fertility. Some other cow groups across the ranches feature more growth and muscling potential. “We need to produce cows that work in each of the Silver Spur locations,” Viator says, noting that the ranches range from desert conditions in New Mexico to high-mountain country in western Colorado to the windswept foothills of southern Wyoming. The company is trending toward developing more replacement heifers on a forage basis. According to York, “We believe we will see increased longevity and identify females that can grow and breed on a forage-based diet by doing this.”

On the Black Angus side, the operation has been purchasing bulls and semen from the Bradley 3 Ranch, Memphis, Texas, selected for higher muscling ability along with marbling, efficiency, fertility and adaptability.

A broad goal of better long-term forage utilization drives much of the genetic selection on the ranch today, based on a belief that high feed prices will necessitate longer grazing and more forage gains for profitable cow-calf production. Currently, many of the Silver Spur calves go directly to finishing after weaning, but Viator expects increasing numbers to spend time in an intermediate growing or backgrounding phase.

Silver Spur is developing an in-herd program to track animals from calf to carcass, and back to the dam and sire group, in its commercial and seedstock herds. They also are building a DNA database on bulls, which they eventually plan to use to identify specific parentage for calves, helping eliminate sires whose calves don’t fit as feeders or replacements.

They sell groups of registered, bred replacement heifers at seedstock sales and retain others for their own breeding herds. This year, Viator says, the ranch is offering a set of commercial Red Angus heifers, all AI mated to “Cross Diamond Peerless” and cleaned up by Peerless and another Cross Diamond bull. Peerless, Viator says, was the high-selling bull from the Cross Diamond sale last December, and Silver Spur owns him in partnership with another producer. “The heifers will sell in the Cross Diamond sale this December, and like on all of the heifers we sell, we would like to have the option to bid on their calves.” Silver Spur intends the sale to help promote its genetics and seedstock business. Silver Spur does not currently hold a bull sale, as the operation’s expansion requires almost all the bulls it produces, in addition to purchased bulls and use of AI sires.

“Our commercial herd managers drive the direction of seedstock selection on the ranches,” Viator says, adding that as marketing manager, she works as a go-between, consulting with commercial managers — both within Silver Spur and among customers — observing cattle and studying databases, and passing their needs back to the seedstock managers.

Viator says the ranch managers keep a close eye on bulls during and after breeding seasons to assess their condition. Selection for efficiency has helped develop bulls that hold up better to the rigors of breeding season. Yearling bulls coming off their first breeding season this year at the Kiowa, Colo., division appeared fit and healthy.

Virtually all Silver Spur calves are source- and age-verified, natural and certified through the Global Animal Partnership, a non-profit organization that certifies livestock operations based on animal-welfare practices. The company finishes its calves at GAP-certified feedyards that adhere to natural production practices and markets them through a program at Tyson that targets high-end restaurants and retailers such as Whole Foods. 

York says Silver Spur’s Charolais-Angus crossbred calves typically grade over 90 percent Choice. In addition to genetics, he credits the management at Mountain View Feeders, a LaPorte, Colo., operation that finishes a large portion of their cattle. Careful management, excellent environmental conditions, feed quality and low-stress handling at the feedyard all contribute to the quality of the end product.

People don’t realize, York says, how much care, dedication and effort ranch workers invest in raising cattle the right way, and he credits Silver Spur employees for the operation’s long-term success. “I don’t worry about them taking off work early,” he says. “I worry about them not taking some time off.”