The uncertainty of the weather and the limits of your land and water are the biggest factors influencing the success of a cattle operation, but collecting data and knowing where you stand can help make decisions.

That was the message Trey Patterson had for attendees of the Beef Improvement Federation conference in Brookings, S.D., June 18. The former South Dakota State University Extension beef specialist is now CEO of the Padlock Ranch Co. He heads the ranch for the Scott family, which owns a feedlot operation and runs 2,000 cow-calf units on 400,000 acres between Sheridan, Wyo. and Billings, Mont.

The ranch was recognized for its resource management with a Leopold Conservation Award in 2013. It’s a careful balance, managing the land that produces feed for cattle while protecting resources. Padlock Ranch managers measure pasture use with a model built using soil maps from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The goal is to be fully stocked while still improving the delicate range resources, Patterson said.

“We want to be well planned,” he said.

His job is to turn data into a useful tool for the ranch, and the goal is to be profitable. The ranch tracks the cost of raising a calf from breeding to weaning, collecting data on everything from appreciation of the bull the calf came from to the cost of the labor it takes to care for the animal.

“Accounting is the backbone of the data that allows us to make decisions on our operation,” Patterson said.

When an unexpected hardship comes along — such as the massive fire that burned through rangeland at the Padlock Ranch in 2012 — the Scott family was able to weigh the options. Feed went up in smoke, so they needed to decide if it was best to look elsewhere and buy more feed or to reduce the herd size and make some quick money from cull cattle.

The family decided to take the hit on profits that year and buy hay to feed its herd. It paid off when the cattle market rebounded in 2013, plus it kept their genetics strong, Patterson said.

“It was intentional management. It wasn’t a guess,” he said.

Janelle Atyeo can be reached at