Part 1: Drovers/CattleNetwork Beef Systems Tour, 2014

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Seeing the beef production system first-hand fosters understanding and advocacy, and the process begins within our own community. To facilitate that experience, Drovers/CattleNetwork periodically hosts Beef Systems Tours as a service to our advertisers. Our goal is to help the people who market products to farmers, ranchers and veterinarians experience multiple aspects and segments of U.S. beef production, so they can develop accurate and effective messages for their customers and the general public.

During the week of May 5, we held our 2014 Drovers Beef Systems Tour in northern Colorado, travelling out of Fort Collins to visit cow-calf, seedstock, feedyard, farming, research, livestock market and beef-packing operations in the foothills and on the High Plains. Our guests represented companies marketing animal-health and nutrition products, agricultural equipment and agricultural finance. The tour provide them with a diverse look at beef production in the region, along with roadside views of other agricultural enterprises including various crops, dairy and lamb production.

In addition to the expertise and industry passion the participants found at each stop, many made note of the outstanding transparency and access our hosts provided. At every stop, even at the JBS-Five Rivers feedyard and the JBS beef-packing plant, we were allowed to see any part of the operation we desired.

Following are a few highlights from the first two stops on the tour. Subsequent articles will cover our visits to Colorado State University, Leachman Cattle of Colorado, Centennial Livestock Auction, Knievel Farms, JBS-Five Rivers Cattle Feeding, JBS beef packing and New Belgium Brewing.

Rabbit Creek Angus, Livermore, Colo.

Our first stop was at Rabbit Creek Angus ranch in the Rocky Mountain foothills outside of Livermore. Owner George Seidel, PhD, and ranch manager Richard Borgmann provided background on the ranch, which raises registered Angus and a commercial Angus-based cow herd. Seidel, in addition to ranching, is a university distinguished professor of bovine reproductive physiology at Colorado State University. In keeping with his interest in bovine reproduction, he regularly conducts trials within his own herd, testing synchronization protocols and other breeding technologies. The week we visited, his crew, with assistance from CSU students, had inseminated over 250 cows in two days.

Seidel also described an innovative production system he has begun to test, which he calls the “no-cow beef program.” This system centers on the use of sexed semen to breed heifers to produce heifer calves. Seidel is one of the scientists who developed the technology for sorting bovine semen, and this is interested in new applications. In the no-cow system, the goal is for every heifer to replace herself with a heifer calf. The calves are weaned early, at about 3 months of age, and the dams ship to a feedyard for finishing. These “heiferettes” have good value as feeder cattle as they will finish at less than 30 months of age and grade well. In this system, Seidel says, everything on the ranch is growing, in contrast with a typical cow-calf system in which cows spend most of their years running up feed costs to maintain body condition. The no-cow system eliminates those feed costs for maintenance. Seidel theorizes the system will produce the same amount of beef per female as a traditional system, but with 30 percent lower energy inputs, 30 percent less waste and 30 percent less methane emissions. He currently is testing the system in his herd. In 2013 he bred 57 Angus-based heifers to Hereford AI and natural sires. After weaning their calves this summer he will market the dams for feeding. He acknowledges there are some costs to the system along with the savings in maintenance. AI produces about a 65 percent conception rate and clean-up bulls will be used for natural service. Also, sexed semen has about 90 percent accuracy, so some steer calves are produced. Some calves will die and some heifers won’t conceive. So, an operation using this system would need to purchase some heifers to maintain stable herd numbers.

Seidel believes the system could be more profitable that a traditional cow-calf system and will conduct an economic analysis of that theory over several years in his herd.

Maxwell Ranch, Red Mountain, Colo.

The Maxwell Ranch is owned by the Colorado State University Research Foundation, which operates it as a commercial, for-profit operation. Joel Vaad and his wife Jennifer manage the operation and live on the ranch.

Since taking on manager’s position in 1997, Vaad has made significant changes to improve long-term profitability on the ranch. Located in the arid foothills of north-central Colorado, the Maxwell has no irrigation for hay production and historically purchased hay for winter feeding. For decades, the ranch operated with a typical February–March calving season, which Vaad says worked fine when feed prices were lower. Back in the 1990s, with hay prices around $60 per ton, Vaad says it cost around $110 per cow for winter feed. But by 2007, with alfalfa priced at $150 per ton, winter feed costs at the Maxwell jumped to $262 per cow.

That’s when Vaad decided something needed to change. After analyzing options, he proposed shifting to a May-June calving season, which the Research Foundation’s board approved. Later calving, he believed, would allow the ranch to shift to 12 months of grazing while giving cows a chance to regain body condition on green grass prior to calving. In 2009 he waited until the end of July, rather than the first of May, to turn the bulls in with the cows.

That fall, Vaad cut back his hay purchases dramatically, planning to feed alfalfa hay just as a protein supplement during February, March and April, rather than as the primary feed through calving season. He also keeps some extra hay on hand as emergency feed in case of a winter storm. The results were dramatic. By the end of April, he had fed 78 tons of alfalfa, compared with more than 500 tons in previous years. In addition to reducing feed costs, the program provides marketing benefits. The ranch now typically sells calves weighing 460 pounds during February, rather than 550-pound calves in October. Although lighter, the calves bring higher prices as they find seasonal demand from stocker operators as well as feedyards.

Vaad also has worked to refine grazing practices on the ranch, using a timed rotational system based on plant growth cycles, providing adequate rest periods for pastures and avoiding seasonal problems with toxic plants including larkspur and ponderosa pines.

The ranch has used AI for heifers, and recently shifted to using it across the entire herd. since the ranch was forced to cull significant cow numbers during the 2012 drought, they have kept their AI-sired heifers as replacements, improving genetic merit as they rebuild the herd.

See the full article and more in the digital edition of the June-July issue of Drovers/CattleNetwork.


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