This article orignially appeared in the December issue of Drovers Cow/Calf.
Sims Cattle Co. is making its cows work much harder for a living, and the people are reaping financial rewards.
Owners Shanon Sims and his father, Scott, along with other family members who work on the ranch 50 miles northwest of Laramie, Wyo., are keeping production up and cutting costs down by key management changes.
“We’ve really pulled the crutches out from underneath our cows,” says Shanon Sims, who notes analogously that Band-Aids have also been removed from their calves.
Though they’re in the early phases, Sims says that he and his father are confident the latest moves are going to pay hefty dividends, just like when they’ve implemented other sizable changes in the past.
“At the peak, it was costing about $550 to maintain each cow in an average year — and at times as much as $700. We’ve gotten that figure down to $450, and we’re confident we can get it to $400, maybe even lower,” Sims says.
That’s a savings of at least $70,000 per year for a small family outfit that runs 700 cow-calf pairs and an additional 300 yearlings on 25,825 deeded and leased acres.
To set the stage, this is rough country for cattle and cowboys alike. Elevations rise between 7,000 and 8,000 feet. Yearly precipitation averages only 12 to 15 inches, much of it in the form of snow during often brutal winters. And winds are fierce, attested by 8- to 14-foot-tall snow fences that parallel a section of nearby Interstate 80, infamously dubbed Snow Chi Minh Trail.
Not fighting nature
In an effort to work with — not against — Mother Nature, the Sims have laid out a slow, deliberate plan to fit their cows to the environment. It started back in the 1970s, and, as you’ll soon read, major changes continue to this day.
When many ranchers were doing everything they could to boost milk production in the ’70s and ’80s, the Sims were doing the opposite. “Dad and grandpa Don were kind of ahead of the curve on that one,” Shanon Sims says. “They found that with our conditions, trying to breed too much milk into the cows ended up costing much more in feed.”
Another profitable change involved moving calving from March to late April and May.
“The cows would breed just fine with earlier calving, but we were spending lots of money on supplemental protein to try and get them through winter in good shape to breed,” Sims continues.
For many years, the ranch ran Angus-Gelbvieh cross, but added Simmental to the mix after hearing what this did for other producers in the Intermountain Region, including Leachman Cattle of Colorado.
“We really like the hybrid vigor, the heterosis,” Sims says of the 50-percent Angus, 25-percent Gelbvieh, 25-percent Simmental cross. “Our cows have become much more efficient.”
To improve efficiency even more, the Sims are in the beginning phases of reducing the average cow size, which peaked at 1,250 pounds, not an ideal weight for the high-altitude, shortgrass prairie.
Sims says the initial move to smaller cows, in part, was based on the philosophies of Colorado beef producers Kit and Deanna Pharo, who found that optimum production is always much more profitable than maximum production, and that ranchers must raise cows that fit their environment instead of artificially changing the environment to fit their cows.
“In the last seven years, we’ve gotten our cows down to 1,150 pounds while maintaining the same weaning weights,” Sims says. “If we can get down to 1,100 pounds, we would be happy, but we’re letting the cows tell us where they want to be.”
He adds: “The cows are going to establish which weight they are most efficient, and that’s why we’re shortening up the breeding season. Right now, we’re looking for a heifer that can breed in one 30-day cycle. If she can’t, she’ll be marketed. We want healthy cows that are going to bring a calf every year.”
Sims says that it’s been tough finding bulls and semen to fit the traits they’re looking for: low birthweight, low milk, moderate cow size, average to below-average height, easy fleshing and above-average cow energy value.
“We artificially inseminate about half our cows, and there are just a handful of AI bulls that we can consider using from each service,” he says. “We’ve found it equally difficult to find herd bulls meeting our criteria.”
Since 2002, the Sims weaned calves in October and trucked all heifers to a feedlot near the Wyoming-Nebraska border. Half were put on a finishing ration and sent to slaughter the following summer, while the other half were fed a grower ration and then trucked back to the ranch in early June, turned out on grass and bred a month later.
In the latest big move to cut costs — and to make their cattle work even harder — the Sims calculatedly decided to keep all heifers on their mothers during winter. Preliminary results reveal significant cost savings.
The Sims say they don’t know whether the move will positively or negatively affect fertility of first-calf heifers. Time will tell on this, along with the pressure of a 30-day breeding season.
Waggener is a freelance journalist based in Laramie, Wyo.